The Digital Journalist
Politics and The New
Front Porch
September 2007

by Ron Steinman

At the end of July, CNN and YouTube got together to put on a TV event they believed would take political debate, and, thus, this current campaign for president, to new heights.

CNN announced that the candidates would get what it thought would be pure questions from viewers as submitted to YouTube, an assumption that the YouTube audience could put aside its self-involvement and self-absorption for a moment and turn to important issues, mainly who might be the next president of the United States. The YouTube questions would come in all shapes, from direct queries to videos produced at home. However, CNN created a committee to vet all the submissions to weed out the obscene, the junk, and the simply foolish. Before the event, CNN played so-called news pieces for its audience about the selection process. These described how the system was working and what the panel had been doing to pick the best, most salient, and what it considered the most succinct questions.

During the debate, there would be no journalists, no panelists, and no filters. However, Anderson Cooper of CNN would moderate and pose follow-up questions. Was this a noble idea or TV hype in an effort to garner good ratings? For me, the CNN-YouTube effort smelled of a stunt created to attract audience. So far, the Republicans have not agreed to a similar debate sometime in the fall. Some candidates called a number of the questions, and the presentation of same, demeaning. This sounds to me as if those candidates do not want to subject themselves to hear what is on the minds of typical or average or thoughtful Americans.

In the debate, the candidates rarely spoke directly to the question posed in the YouTube format. No surprise there. That is typical of all political debates where candidates answer questions with policy statements rather than with substance. Is there some way to say to each candidate that we want you to be candid instead of canned?

In spite of the Internet and the new possibilities it brings, it is worth noting how candidates conducted campaigns in the distant past, though distant is open to interpretation, because, as we know, most of our young think only yesterday was a long time ago. I am referring to the real past when the likes of Benjamin Harrison campaigned only from his front porch, giving speeches and staging promotional events at his home. Grover Cleveland did not campaign beyond his front porch either. He thought it not dignified. And he, too, made political speeches in the shade from what I assume must have been a comfortable seat. In 1896, William McKinley gave more than 300 speeches from the large front porch at his home in Canton, Ohio. In their eagerness to see McKinley, people trampled his lawn and stripped his picket fence for souvenirs. Things started to change when William Jennings Bryant campaigned for president. He toured the country by special train. Warren G. Harding and Teddy Roosevelt no longer sat still but made their way across America instead of waiting for the press to come to them.

Imagine if candidates campaigned that way now. How joyful would be the sound of silence compared to the cacophony we must endure today. Alas, that is not the case. We must endure constant and numbing coverage of every move made by each of the too many candidates wanting to be president. It is the Internet where we should be looking for the future front porch. Consider that only 25 percent of all American Internet users get their news that way. Undoubtedly that number will steadily rise as newspapers continue to fail. Though the numbers for 2007 are not yet in, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2006, 31 percent of those using the Internet did it to get political news. Only 15 percent used the Internet as their primary source for campaign news, a distinct difference from political news. Today, along with YouTube, we have MySpace, Facebook, and many others of the same ilk. There are E-blasts, robocalls, direct e-mail, aggregates, links, RSS feeds, viral video and many more too numerous to name. The list grows like weeds.

The YouTube debate format is only one of many avenues the campaign for the next president is taking. In some ways, it may be the sanest, if only the candidates would answer the questions directly. Or is that too much to ask? Perhaps when the field narrows, and the few remaining aspirants are willing, the format will work better than it did at first. But there are, as I described, many more ways to campaign today and all are in play. Every campaign from this time forward will use each new device as it comes online. Call them means and methods, but they are really toys – exciting, supercharged, and unleashing more energy and hope than a child with a huge dynamo. Does this mean that candidates will eventually campaign only from the new front porch of the Web instead of getting away without campaigning in person? Not quite yet. If anyone thinks that way, he or she had better think again. Any worthy political consultant will say that nothing beats meeting voters in small groups and large, there to shake hands, grasp shoulders, have a laugh, and of course, kiss a baby or two. But there are too many people, too many sites, and too many stops along the way and so little time. Thus, the power and reach of the Web beckons.

My continued reservation concerns those the professionals are preaching to use these new tools. It is always the same people. Are these numbers really growing? Is it only a youthful audience and thus limited by their approach to substance? Universal computer literacy hampers all campaigns. Computer coverage is not nearly complete in America. It is a shame that there are many people without computers and thus, without access. Until we fill those holes, pressing the flesh, using old-fashioned shoe leather and traveling by plane, bus and train across the country will have to suffice for many Americans who still want to see the candidates in person.

We can say this much. Because of the role of the Internet, nothing will ever be the same again in the world of politics. Only time will tell if any of these new methods work or not, if they are good or bad, when they will really start in earnest, and what will be the outcome.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.