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November 26, 2007

YouTube, a "Terrible Thing" (A Second Look)

Several of the morons took me to task this morning for rudely and unfairly criticizing this post at Extreme Mortman about the potential effect YouTube and similar sites will have on politicians. For example, Additional Blond Agent wrote:

I actually *read* the posting in question and it raises a number of valid and frankly difficult points to address. It does us no good to dismiss them without proper consideration.

I thought a second look was in order. Since this may interest only two of the readers, I've tucked it into the extended entry.


First, let's see what Howard Mortman said:

Could the YouTube revolution in politics backfire?

We’ve become quite enamored with YouTube’s edgy ability to bring us raw, uncensored, unscripted moments from politics for our ridiculing pleasure. But is this public video voyeurism setting ourselves up for the next logical development: politicians will simply provide us less raw, uncensored, unscripted moments?

[...]

If that’s the case, then politicians will surely become even more guarded than ever before. And that’s a terrible thing.

There are a lot of question marks and a conditional in there. That Mortman has phrased his idea in the form of a maybe-could does not exempt the idea from criticism. He has an idea, he's just not sure whether it will turn out to be correct. I still think the idea is, well, silly and that politician behavior is unlikely to change, but let's take a look at his points to see why.

He thinks that politicians might "provide us less raw, uncensored, unscripted moments" because they fear near-instantaneous publication and distribution via video websites. This morning I ridiculed this point by analogizing to other forms of media, including newspapers and cable news. My idea was that newspapers and cable news also should be discouraging candidates from giving us less unscripted moments; but that there's no point in lamenting it.

A reasonable objection to my analogy may be that YouTube is both quicker and more accessible than newspapers and cable news. Once a particularly embarrassing video of a politician hits YouTube it may be watched thousands of times by curious voters. Moreover, opposition candidates and parties can take the video and incorporate it into their own campaign material, or just send yet more voters over to YouTube to watch.

So I will concede that YouTube may represent a greater threat than CNN to expose the gaffes of politicians or, perhaps, their two-faced ways (as suggested by Gekkobear and exemplified by this hilarious campaign ad about Clinton). But that still leaves the other half of the equation: will that threat cause politicians to change their behavior?

I doubt it. I doubt it so strongly that I think the idea is idiotic. It's not like candidates are going to suddenly wake up to the fact that they are on camera. They already know that. They're already engaging in "more talking points, more platitudes, more stay-on-message public encounters" as Mortman phrases it.

It didn't save George Allen. He knew that the cameras were rolling. The same applies to Howard Dean. Despite the fact that they knew their words would be repeated around the world in mere minutes, they did not appear to change their behavior -- at least, not enough to "become even more guarded than ever before." Of course, we can never know what they would have said had they thought there were no cameras.

But that's also a ridiculous position. Should we discourage otherwise-legitimate forms of campaign reporting all in the hopes that candidates will become less scripted, more raw, and more uncensored? Of course not. That's why I immediately scoffed at the idea.

For fairness' sake I should note that Mortman did not say that we should try and prevent this hypothetical effect on politicians. His post was more along the lines of "this will be sad if it comes true." He did not say we should do anything about it except to note that it would be "a terrible thing" if politicians started cleaning up their public relations.

As I noted this morning, I don't think it will be a bad thing at all if politicians clean up their act. And I think that the more we hold their feet to the fire with things like YouTube, newspapers, and cable news, the better off we will be. At some point each politician comes to a point where they cannot polish or refine his or her public persona any more. That's right where we want them.

To sum up, I still think it's an idiotic idea because it is both unlikely and, even if true, is not seriously harmful. I stand by my post, but appreciate the comments which led me to look at this again.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 05:54 PM

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