The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

A video lesson for traditional journalists

Monday’s YouTubed debate between the Democrat’s presidential candidates should have more impact on the Washington press corps than on the voters or politicians.

Clyde BentleyIt wasn’t really a debate, but a technology-enhanced people’s news conference. The post-your-own-video service asked people for brief clips with their questions for the candidates. Some 3,000 picked up the camera challenge – 39 were selected and their questions played to the seven candidates.

I missed the actual debate, but I think it unlikely anyone could have missed the follow-up commentaries and replays of highlights. They confirmed what I have long expected:


The Washington press corps is pretty lame.

I enjoyed the fact that the debate employed new technology and I reveled in the opportunity for citizens to have their say. I thought most of the candidates did a good job and that the questions were very often poignant.

But what I enjoyed the most about the event was the lack of protocol by the inquisitionists. A recent extended stay in London gave me the embarrassing revelation that American journalists are too polite for their own good. And our own good.

“Journos” in the UK are blunt to the point of being rude. But they follow the lead of their own members of Parliament, who weekly give the prime minister a televised thrashing. Each Wednesday the PM must face friends and foes alike for a half-hour of hard and quite often accusatory questions.

As a result, politicians in the UK are forced to be both articulate and very well prepared. Contrast Tony Blair to George Bush.

Our presidential news conferences are dull and seldom informative. From a auditorium-packing horde of reporters, a select few are given the chance to query the president. The questions are often deferential almost never pointed. If they are, the next reporter in line usually asks his or her prepared question rather than holding the chief’s feet to the fire with a follow-up.

Monday’s You-Tube press corps was very different. They asked tough questions in very personal ways. Candidates had to look at the faces of a gay couple that asked if they could marry. And a gun-control advocate who held his “baby” – an assault rifle.

I can’t imagine any of the 39 questions being asked by a traditional journalist – even if you didn’t make them dress as a snowman or hold a gun. But the press corps need not worry that You Tube and other citizen journalism formats will eliminate their paychecks. If…

If they will just do their jobs.

July 25, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

1 Comment »

  1. Clyde:
    As usual, you have put your fingers on the key issue…
    I agree that it was a good idea to get the views of the people themselves. Don’t forget, however, that the 39 videos were selected probably by members of the Washington press corps i.e. the CNN bureau! So the presentation was much less spontaneous than the viewer might have assumed or the network intended.
    I think we know that presidential news conferences are a poor way to get info and are intended largely as a symbol to let the people know the president is undergoing “questioning.”
    I’ve covered the White House and it is hard to get info beyond the monolithic voice of every staff member there.

    This is a structural/institutional problem, not one of lassitude on the part of the White House reporters.

    I know the Washington press corps comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of it is valid. Like, my pet peeve, the excessive coverage of Congress (actually a great place for a reporter because of the easy availability of uncounted sources who want to talk), and we all know that Congress nowadays is little more than a debate forum. Some of the best reporting in Washington is done by unsung regional reporters. But they too tend to rely on their members of Congress for tips and info.

    On the other hand, there is significant stuff that continually comes from hard work by the Washington press corps. For instance:

    –Dana priest’s stories in the Washington Post on 1) the conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, and 2) the existence of U.S. secret prisons overseas.

    –The stories on Duke Cunningham, the disgraced former congressman.

    –Obviously, Bernstein-Woodward’s Watergate stories.

    Perhaps you could argue that the paucity of the list (which I culled from only what I could remember for a few moments) proves your point.

    Wes Pippert

    Comment by Wes Pippert | July 26, 2007 | Reply

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