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I spent many years toiling in the television news business, countless hours of which were spent sitting in sleek, cool, dark spaces known variously as the "Control Room" and even "Master Control."
Think about it for a moment -- control as the dominant metaphor for an entire industry. And knowing when to exercise firm control, and when it's best just to let go, can be one of life's most difficult and delicate dances -- as any parent can attest.
Maybe that explains why CNN seemed so unsure about when to let go and when to hold on during its much-ballyhooed "YouTube Debate." Its MSM mania for "filtering" the questions, coupled with moderator Anderson Cooper's failure to control the candidates and push them actually to answer the questions asked, marred what was otherwise an interesting and even laudable experiment in participatory democracy.
In only dipping its toe in the swirling, muddy waters of citizen media, greater access, and individual empowerment, however, America's 'most trusted news network' failed to deliver on the promise of a Great Debate by, in essence, failing to trust the American people.
In the end, after all the fear of unfiltered, unmediated questions delivered directly from the electorate to the candidates, it turned out that the fear was misplaced. It was CNN and the candidates themselves who let us down.
The questions from 'ordinary citizens' were great, the answers from the ordinary candidates not so great -- largely because they were not nearly as direct, thoughtful, honest or embracing. Instead, the bizarre nexus of Big Politics and Big Media once again displayed a simultaneous fascination with and fear of the Internet, the 'New Media' it has brought crashing down on their carefully wrought old media plans -- and especially the audience formerly known as the electorate.
The idea behind the debate format -- i.e. including for the first time 'citizen media' questions, often delivered in the highly personal and pointed direct-to-web-camera YouTube video style that has become so familiar -- was an inspired one.
Unfortunately, and all too typically, however, CNN's old media fear of losing control trumped its fascination with the new. In only going halfway, the cable news network delivered an inevitable result -- a debate that was only half great. Instead of leaving the decision of which questions would be asked to the same citizens who had already sent in thousands of mostly intelligent, serious and to-the-point videos, CNN honchos decided they needed to 'filter' the process and decide themselves which questions would get asked, so as to ensure the seriousness and high purpose of the evening would not be dragged through the mud of the mob.
To defend this dubious decision, they pointed to a crazy question about Arnold Schwarzenegger being a cyborg as the 'most popular' questioned submitted to YouTube. It turns out that was just an 'early return,' however, and in the end the most popular question -- which went unchosen by the CNN priesthood and thus unasked -- was a very serious one about the possible impeachment of President Bush.
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.