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Anyone who’s ever spent any time on YouTube knows it’s the Internet’s greatest time-suck yet. Thirty second clips spawn 30 minute sessions as one bumbling weatherman leads to another, till suddenly you realize you’ve spent the last six hours watching breakdancing babies, teenage girls fighting, and terrible rap songs performed by two dorks who think it’s a hoot to bust rhymes about math. If there’s ever been an opiate of the masses, YouTube is that opiate. TV only trained us for YouTube. In ten years, we’ll wonder how we were ever mindlessly entertained without it.
Few things annoy me more than when news shows feel the need to play YouTube videos. I can waste a whole weekend watching YouTube with the best of them, but nothing reminds me how banal it is—or how pathetic news shows are—more than when the old media latch onto the new. It’s worse than a couple of years ago when crusty old news anchors first started talking about “blogs” and “bloggers” and “blogging.” All of a sudden Howard Dean’s running for president and the news can’t get over this rugged, independent online journalism thing. Meanwhile, anyone with anything important to say figured out how to say it in 1996. The rest were just as me-too as most YouTube videos—like the people who sit down, sigh, and conduct Blair Witch-style weekly political “shows” with their webcams.
It’s not that all blogs were inherently worthless, and it’s not that all of YouTube is inherently worthless, either. It’s just this behind-the-curve gawking by the news shows that bothers me, because that’s when half the idiots in this country decide they’ll scream as loud as they have to, just to make it on TV.
But for all the things that stink about YouTube, and for all the things that stink about the way TV covers it, if there’s one TV-YouTube marriage I support, it’s CNN’s YouTube presidential debate construct. The first of these debates took place a few weeks ago, pitting the Democratic field of presidential contenders against a series of “real” questions from “real” YouTube users, such as the guy dressed as a snowman who asked about global warming.
I was reading the other day that Ron Paul and John McCain were the only Republicans interested in the GOP version of this concept. I get why the others think it’s ridiculous—and believe me, if I could see a McCain-Paul debate without those other jokers, I’d be perfectly happy with it. But it surprises me how shortsighted the rest of the GOP field is being. Most of these guys are out of touch as it is. Do they really want to cement that reputation by taking a pass on YouTube?
True, this thing is a mere step above an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” debate moderated by Bob Saget. In fact, I’d take it a step further and say it’s only a step above an “America’s Got Talent” debate judged by a screaming Sharon Osbourne and a barely lucid David Hasselhoff. But ridiculous as YouTube and many of its users may be, are they really any more or less ridiculous than your average presidential election? And even if they are, if guys dressed as snowmen are what passes for citizen journalists in this country, would it really destroy your puffed up credentials or fabricated image to answer their questions once in a while? (I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney.)
Most people with brains—of which there are some in America, contrary to popular belief—long ago concluded these debates don’t matter anyway. The media have already decided who’s getting the nominations (or at least who’s eligible for the nominations), and any collection of candidates onstage is merely for practice. If we insist on continuing these spectacles, then I, for one, stand firmly in favor of making them the biggest spectacles they can be. And if that means answering questions from YouTube, or taking Vince McMahon up on his next offer to host a debate live during wrestling, so be it. The country will be a better, smarter, more interesting place for it.
Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be watching Ron Paul campaign footage on YouTube…