Entertainment or news? The CNN/YouTube GOP 'Debate'

I was a YouTube “vlogger” at the St. Petersburg Republican CNN/YouTube debate, where questions for the candidates were chosen from over 5000 video clips submitted by YouTube users. I was not allowed to use my video camera during the show itself, but I was in the fourth row, right down front, in an aisle seat directly behind action-actor Chuck Norris and in front of candidate Fred Thompson’s wife, Jeri, so I had a pretty good view of the event. Later, I wandered freely around the “Spin Room” where TV personalities and print reporters surrounded candidates and their spokespeople and shouted questions at them. It was in the noise and heat of the Spin Room that I realized none of the candidates on stage had “won.” The real winner was Chuck Norris, with fellow vlogger Chris ‘Pudge’ Nandor (who wrote the debate’s theme song) and Hillary Clinton tied for second place.

In the Spin Room, Chuck Norris attracted the largest crowd of reporters and TV people. During the debate itself, CNN’s cameras focused on him repeatedly, to the point where he was on home viewers’ TV screens nearly as many minutes as any candidate. Chris Nandor, too, got lots of TV face time during the debate, partly because he was one row behind and one seat left of Chuck Norris so it was easy for CNN’s roving cams to pick up both of them in the same shot.

I was in most of those shots, too, because of where I was sitting, and after the 10th or 12th time a CNN guy hunkered down next to us and stuck a video cam in our faces from less than three feet away, I realized what Chris, Chuck, and I had that none of the candidates had: Beards!

My reportorial instincts kicked in at that point, and I asked Chuck why he thought none of the candidates had beards. “I don’t know,” he said. Chris didn’t know, either. Jeri, wife of Fred Thompson, leaned over my shoulder and confided that she liked beards and Fred had once tried to grow one, but it came in “too wispy” to look good. (“Where is Abraham Lincoln when you need him?” I thought to myself.)

On stage, while our section of the audience was whispering like like bored high school students, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney were attacking each other for being too soft on illegal immigrants. If I recall the exchange correctly, it went something like this:

Mitt: “Nyah, nyah, you ran a sanctuary city, nyah nyah nyah.”

Rudy: “Did not, and you’re nothing but a big old boobie-head.”

Tom Tancredo: “I’m meaner to illegal immigrants than both of you put together, yuck, yuck, yuck.”

Rudy: “Mitt hires illegals to work on his house. He has a sanctuary mansion, heh, heh, heh.”

John McCain: “Hey, kids, isn’t this a nuanced issue that deserves serious consideration, not silly yammer?”

Maybe these weren’t the exact words, but I believe I caught the substance of the conversation correctly: it was flat-out, grade-school name-calling — until mean old Mr. McCain, the playground monitor, broke up the argument.

This nonsense is supposed to help us choose a president? Oy!

Meanwhile, glowering over all the Republican candidates was the spirit of Hillary Clinton, who got mentioned (unfavorably) by almost every candidate on stage at least once. The only real point of agreement among the debaters seemed to be, “I may suck, and you may suck, but none of us suck as bad as Hillary Clinton.”

Oh, that evil Hillary! She’s so powerful that she managed to infiltrate a Republican debate without even being there! Not even Osama bin Laden is as nasty as Hillary; in fact, I don’t remember him being mentioned at all.

The debate’s TV reality was not really real

The first thing that struck me when I, along with the other YouTubers, entered the “lounge” area set aside for us on a mezzanine overlookng the Spin Room, two hours before the debate began, was the number of theater-style lights focused on the TV people doing their pre-debate standup schticks, each one under his or her own pool of high-intensity light, each one nattier-dressed than the next, and every one of them caked with as much makeup as a corpse in an open casket.

While watching the TVers do their warmups, I suddenly flashed on last year’s Reuters picture-altering scandal, in which a freelance photographer was fired for using digital image-morphing software to make a bombing raid on Beirut look twice as destructive as it really was.

“Isn’t altering reality through the use of makeup and artful lighting the same as using software to alter images after the fact?” I asked myself. When the candidates came on stage for the debate, I had the same thought again. Chuck Norris wasn’t wearing makeup. Chris Nandor wasn’t wearing makeup. I wasn’t wearing makeup. And I thought we all looked just fine. When I interviewed the “Gay General,” Keith Kerr, he wasn’t wearing any, either. But the candidates were layered with the stuff, and CNN personality Anderson Cooper looked like he was wearing so much face-paint that his eyes would fall out if he wiped it all off.

The stage was lit like crazy, too, with millions of lumens pouring down on the made-up candidates. If any of them had warts or pimples or bags under their eyes or facial discolorations or any of the other little appearance defects most normal humans have, they were totally hidden. It was as if we were watching cardboard cutouts of the candidates — or perhaps stage actors playing the candidates, instead of seeing the candidates themselves.

That was the moment I realized this event — the so-called debate — was entertainment, not news, and figured out a new way to tell whether someone we see on TV is (or is not) an actual, working reporter: Anyone who wears more makeup on-camera than to go to the supermarket is an entertainer, not a reporter.

This thought had been creeping around in the back of my mind for many years, but this was the first time it surfaced full-blown — and it surfaced in a flash of light almost as brilliant as the many spots focused on the debate stage.

Maybe some of the made-up entertainers who play reporters on TV are reporters in real life but, for some reason, have decided to hide this fact from us. If so, they need to stop acting like entertainers and start acting and looking like real reporters. I suspect that the appearance alterations we have come to accept as normal on TV are a major reason Americans distrust TV news, much of which — especially political news — now consists of made-up “personalities” interviewing people who are just as made-up as they are. Grrr!

The man behind the curtain and other out-takes

While reporters and TV people mobbed Chuck Norris, hardly any video cameras were pointed at David Bohrman, the CNN senior vice president who produced the show. I didn’t ask him some of the hard questions a traditional reporter might, because most of the ones I had in mind were already asked and answered in a Wired interview that ran the day before the debate. Instead, I just chatted casually with him, as did my friend and coworker Chris ‘Pudge’ Nandor, the guy who wrote the song Bohrman used to open the show.

Now it’s time for a little disclosure: Besides being a heavy YouTube uploader and a talented singer/songwriter, Chris works on the famously geeky discussion website, Slashdot, which has been doing email interviews using reader-generated (and reader-selected) questions since 1999. I work on Slashdot, too, as well as other sites owned by its parent company, SourceForge, Inc., so we’re both aware of the perils and joys of soliciting and using reader input.

We’re also well aware of the unreality that often surrounds what I call “manufactured news” events such as press conferences and punditfests — and the GOP/YouTube GOP debate — that typically offer at least as much entertainment as substance.

Another example of unreality here: Chris didn’t write and humbly submit that song. They asked him to write it. No pay was involved, but it has already led to more media coverage for Pudge than many full-time songwriters get in their entire lives. I wish I’d been allowed to turn on my video camera during the broadcast, just to catch Chris’s blushing face live, contrasted with the huge ‘Chris’ on the giant screen next to the stage, and the candidate’s smiles (in some cases a bit forced-looking) when he mentioned each of their names in turn. But all that is available elsewhere, so my inability to capture that moment (due to a strict rule prohibiting non-CNN still or video camera use during the broadcast) is no loss to the world.

You see, Chris didn’t know in advance that they were really going to use his song. He was as surprised as anyone else to see and hear it used as the kickoff for the whole thing. At the same time, I think he was a little disappointed that none of the questions he submitted were asked. Chris is serious about his politics; he’s a Republican Party chairperson in Snohomish County, Washington, and spent quite a bit of time coming up with serious questions for the candidates. No question: He deserves every bit of the attention he’s getting as a result of the CNN/YouTube debate, possibly more than Chuck Norris or Hillary Clinton deserve theirs. But in a way, I think he’d rather get that attention for serious political reasons rather than as an entertainer.

One thing (besides Chris’s blush) I wish I had been able to videotape during the debate was the rows of empty seats in the back of the room. The Mahaffey Theater, where the debate was held, has a stated capacity of 2030. I’d say at a guess, without counting, that between 15% and 20% of those seats were empty. Does this mean the Florida Republican Party, which was the group that handed out tickets, couldn’t find enough Republicans to fill the place, here in the middle of a heavily Republican area? Or was there some other worthiness test given besides Republican registration? There were hundreds of Ron Paul supporters outside; I’m sure many of them would have been happy to come inside and cheer for their candidate.

What’s a “vlogger’s” role at a heavily-covered event?

Since there were mainstream media types all over the place, I obviously wasn’t covering something the “MSM” had overlooked. Instead, with my hand-held Sony A1U video camera, mostly using nothing but a shotgun (on-camera) microphone. I was part of a gigantic media scrum, going elbow-to-elbow with reporter and TV people from all over the world.

Since it seemed pointless to shoot the same people and ask the same questions as everyone else, I decided to make a series of super-short videos that gave an “insider’s eye view” that wouldn’t come through on CNN or other cable or TV outlets. Did I succeed? Got me. Here are some of the videos I shot at the CNN/You GOP debate. Please take a look at them and let me know.

TV Personalities, Reporters, and ‘Vloggers’ – A Study in Contrasts

A YouTube “vlogger” who doesn’t want to be a news pro…

…but still made the best Chuck Norris video of all

CNN producer talks with Chris Nandor

‘Gay General’ Keith Kerr endorses Giuliani

About Robin Miller

Editor in Chief for SourceForge, Inc., owner of Slashdot, NewsForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, SourceForge.net, and the ecommerce site ThinkGeek.

Author of three books about computer and/or Internet stuff. Now experimenting with various video and mixed-media story delivery methods.