11/28/2007 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Ihope the talking snowman does not show up tonight during the GOP presidential debate at the Mahaffey Theater. A talking snowman, or any other kind of snowman, does not belong in any official forum related to electing the U.S. president, the most powerful person in the world.
The snowman I’m referring to, of course, is the animated one – complete with tangerine eyes, baby carrots for a mouth and a lemon nose – that showed up in a video during the July CNN/YouTube Democratic debate in South Carolina. In a high-pitched-cartoon voice, the snowman asked a question about global warming.
Guests in the audience laughed, many uncomfortably. Some of the millions of TV viewers were uncomfortable because they sensed that something about how we elect the president of our nation had been cheapened.
Although I do not put much stock in the presidential debates, I certainly believe that CNN and YouTube have trivialized what small measure of inherent significance the debates may have had.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, moderator of tonight’s debate show, is high on the entertainment value of snowman’s performance.
“Some people were critical of the snowman question, which was sort of an odd criticism,” Cooper told St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans. “You could have had a question on global warming that started with talking about CO2 levels and greenhouse gases and people’s eyes would glaze over. I thought it was a clever, funny way to ask a serious question, and if some people thought that cheapened the debate, I think they need to have a little bit more of a sense of humor about things.”
I disagree. We do not need “a little bit more of a sense of humor” about electing our next president. (Hell, George W. Bush has a sense of humor. Look where that got us.) Contrary to what Anderson argues, we need those fact-laced, wonky, Al Gore-type questions that a real person asks.
Supporters of the YouTube format, including Cooper, apparently believe that they are ushering in civic activism, a more participatory candidate selection process by permitting 5,000 or more people nationwide to send in their questions on video. CNN then picks the video-questions for the candidates.
“I think it’s great to have people from all different walks of life have the ability to ask questions to someone who will be the president, and … ask it in the way that they truly speak,” Cooper told Deggans. “I think that’s important.”
Mastering the formula that gets their videos shown on national television is the most important thing to those who upload their videos to YouTube. I do not care what Cooper or anyone says, style and form are more important than substance in the YouTube age of presidential debates.
Call me old school for believing that replacing Bush with a highly competent person, even a cold woman who never wears a dress, should not involve snowmen or people simply seeking their 15 minutes of fame. Please, let me hear questions starting off talking about CO2 levels and greenhouse gases. Let my eyes glaze over. And give me candidates who can answer the questions truthfully and convincingly, even boringly.
I am old-fashioned for believing that the educated citizenry, not an entertained one, is the backbone of a viable democracy. Voters have no way of knowing how the person elected as president will govern once in the White House, nor do they have any real way of forcing the president to change course. What voters do have is the opportunity to make sound judgments about the candidates they vote for.
Where do sound judgments come from? They come primarily from research, reading, listening and talking with informed people.
I am afraid that instead of helping to educate voters, YouTube will continue to cheapen and trivialize the election process.
Since this is Florida, what will Cooper surprise us with tonight at the Mahaffey Theater? A character dressed as an alligator asking Fred Thompson about the destruction of the Everglades? How about an animated orange querying Rudy Giuliani about citrus canker?