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Smoke Gets in our Eyes

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The way CNN has been beating its chest congratulating itself for staging the CNN-YouTube Democratic Debate Monday night, you would think they discovered the Holy Grail. The two-hour show was being hailed as a real breakthrough in political discourse. A turning point in communication, its fans say, a breath of fresh air.

I say it stinks. It smells like the stale air coming from the smoke-filled backroom meetings of politicians and news executives in bed together, a new way the politicians and their media enablers have figured out to blow smoke in the eyes of the public they have been continually gulling in the name of open and frank political process.

The YouTube-CNN collaboration is indeed a turning point in political communication, as its fans say, but a turn in the wrong direction. It's the worse thing to happen to the oldest political forum -- debates -- since the League of Women Voters invented the glorified press conference format we now know as the oxymoron "presidential debates."

By now, just about everybody has forgotten how the founding mothers of TV debates in 1972 kowtowed to candidates who refused to talk in the old fashioned way -- one on one -- on camera. They broke new ground for burying debates by allowing the politicians to set the terms for the New Media of its day (network television news): let there be questions from correspondents, time limits, strict moderators with bells and whistles for violations of rules, and other ways to make sure candidates do not wind up saying anything that would make them look bad.

This latest pathetic so-called debate is loved by the Internet. They say it's a sign the old media establishment is finally coming to terms about the importance of New Media.

But the politicians love it even more. It's a new way to dupe the public into thinking they are opening up the windows and letting the folks know what's really on their minds. Actually, it's a game of hide and seek, with the public left holding the usual bag of wind.

The new format allows CNN to dispense with the usual Star Chamber panel of media correspondents asking questions, a vehicle that already this season has been getting flat tires. In the first two debates earlier this year, moderator Wolf Blitzer has seized the wheel and driven the interrogation with his own line of questioning.

This time CNN has out-sourced the questions.

In place of the dumped media Torquemadas, the CNN-You Tube breakthrough has questions from the folks at home. Well, not all the folks, but that segment of debate fans with the savvy and the inclination to make videos.

The politicians are thrilled. If we have to debate, we would rather face the folks at home than news correspondents. Those nosy reporters might actually ask embarrassing questions. Real debates are fraught with dangers. A candidate can appear to be stupid, unprincipled, gutless, a chameleon.

There is less risk in dealing with the public. What do they know? The public, after all, are the people who elected George Bush twice.

Maybe it's just me, but I respect journalists -- even the wimpy ones CNN had been inviting to these Q&A's -- more than the video-makers at home.

Even if you have poli-sci majors and policy wonks asking video questions, there were two serious impediments Monday night for a breakthrough political discourse.

First, there is the producer in CNN's smoke-filled back room screening the 3,000 videos that came in through the transom. (A surprisingly small number given the millions of hits on You Tube). Mr. Producer doesn't want anybody surprising the candidates by asking where they stand on Howard Stern?

Then there is the moderator, this time the so-called hip anchorman, Anderson Cooper. Coop's job was to feed the question to whomever he thought it should handle it. Usually, one, two or three candidates. But what about the whole team of eight? How could you compare answers when they were shut out? Was Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel chopped liver? I always wanted to hear what these guys had to say, Gravel for laughs and Kucinich for sincerity.The way Cooper was force-feeding Sen. Clinton I had the feeling I was watching a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Whenever there was a mini-exchange between two candidates, and it seemed the format would allow a real debate to break out, the fire was quickly snuffed out by volunteer fireman Anderson. It was as if he feared the show might go berserk and turn in to a real discussion of ideas, slowing down the train of thought.

The worse thing about the new improved YouTube format is that it could very well replace the old pathetic so-called debates with an even more pathetic excuse for a debate.

There is Gresham's Law of politics: bad debates drive out good in debating, as well as in money

CNN is already warning us that Republican candidates will be grilled by the YouTube 3000 when next The Gang of Ten convenes in Florida on Sept. 17. Will there be a YouTuber who will ask Mitt Romney if he thinks Lord Voldermort is a Mormon?

It's the ratings, they will argue, for letting candidates get off the hook permanently.

I've gotten to the point that I'm not appalled anymore by the pathetic so-called debates. I've grown used to my "Most Trusted Name in News" (as CNN calls itself) being the lily-livered network sucking up to political media manipulators.The only hope is the rubber band can be stretched only so far and some day it will snap back. If anybody still remembers what a debate meant.

In the meanwhile, I suggest CNN go easy with the self-congratulations. They're liable to break their hands.