Anyone naive enough to believe that online video would democratize, and thereby improve, political discussion in America has been deservedly disappointed. In the recent presidential debates, instead of submitting questions by email — last decade's fad — Internet users were asked to vlog in their queries to the candidates. The results, far from being unpredictable and populist, were as scripted as any TV show.
The YouTube/CNN debate delivered sophomoric (but stereotypical YouTube) softballs. And any remaining hopes were dashed by the Iowa Republican debate hosted by ABC's George Stephanopoulos. The Disney-owned network, like YouTube, implemented user voting in its video-submission process. And, predictably, the result was more "America's Funniest Home Videos" than New England Town Hall. ABC adroitly crafted its call for citizen submissions to market its televised event, not raise the level of political discourse.
If you followed the marketing hype around ABC's debate, you may have believed that video questions submitted by everyday people would be central to the broadcast and that the popularly chosen submissions would be selected. Instead, only two videos were used, neither of them top-rated. Zennie Abraham accused the network of "vlogger fraud," describes one of the lucky two as "the typical, predictable, stereotypical blonde white female that a TV producer would select." (Ironically, Abraham then turned around and suggested ABC pick typical, predictable, stereotypical blonde white female Amanda Congdon to run the debate instead.)
Of course, a close reading of ABC's actual call for submissions should have warned Abraham and company of what to expect:
We encourage you, your family, colleagues & friends to vote/rate favorite questions & the highest rated videos will be a factor in George Stephanopoulos' decision and also have the opportunity to be featured in ABC News NOW's post-debate Spin room!
No promise that submissions will be included in the debate or that votes will actually matter.
And why would anyone think otherwise? The networks have long known that hard-hitting questions and articulate, thoughtful responses don't make for good TV. Or, for that matter, win debates. But exploiting the vlogger community? That makes for excellent pre-debate buzz. The fact that the vlogging community was taken in, and is now up in arms, just shows how clever ABC's marketing team is.