October 23, 2007

Who's watching?

For my first long blog post I’ve decided to crunch some numbers. Yeah I know, it doesn’t sound so exciting at first. But I was curious to see how good (turns out I should say “how bad”) viewership among the American people is today, and also the trends that presidential debate viewership have been taking since the 60’s when the televised debate was first introduced. The Commission On Presidential Debates has records on viewership numbers going all the way back to Kennedy and Nixon.
Things started out OK. The four televised debated in the 1960 general election drew an average viewership 63.1 million people per debate. At the time, this averaged out to be nearly 35 percent of the population watching each debate. Viewership percentages fell slowly, and not too alarmingly through the 70’s and 80’s. In 1988 an average of 27.5 percent of the population tuned in each night.
The year America changed the channel appears to be 1996. An average of 41.2 million people watched the debates, that's a population average of only 15.5 percent at the time. Numbers from 2000 show that viewership was continuing to slow.
One thing I noticed in looking at all this was that Americans tuned in their greatest numbers for the 1960 debates between Kennedy and Nixon, and 1960 was the only election year to feature 60 minute debates. Every year after that the debate time was increased to 90 minutes. Is it possible that working Americans just don’t have those 90 minutes in their day to spare?
Early projections of viewership in 2008 don’t look too promising. The highest rated debate thus far has been Fox News Channel’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, which was seen in 2.47 million households. Debates held on CNN and MSNBC have fared worse.

New York Times takes a tip from YouTube

I was just scanning the New York Times website, looking for something of interest to post about, when I stumbled across an embedded video in the margin of the U.S. Politics page. The video is called "Republican Debate: Analyzing the Details". Not only is there a video transcript and an accompanying text transcript, but the debate has been conveniently divided up into clickable sections, such as: "Republicans vs. Hillary Clinton," "Health Care," and "Who's More Conservative?" Also, the good people at the New York Times have included a transcript analyzer, which lists the exact number of words spoken by each participant (excluding the moderator, Rudy Guiliani tops the list with 2158, while Jim Greer and Charlie Crist each have a measly 60), and which visually breaks up the debate into a weird, bar code-esque format. Talk about user-friendly.

When YouTube first exploded into the internet scene, being able to watch a news clip or political debate through a website at one's leisure was an exciting novelty. Later, as we learned from guest speaker James Kotecki, YouTube began to transform from a sort of political vessel into a political instigator. Now it appears as though the trend is catching on. I have no idea whether or not New York Times Online has been posting videos for a while now, but regardless--it's fascinating to see to what extent news sources are now attempting to cater to their readers. Now, not only are you not obligated to plan your evening around a scheduled debate, but you don't even have to watch all of it to find out what candidates said about issues that concern you.

The only negative aspect of this sort of convenience that I can see is that it could perpetuate--and probably even intensify--the closed-mindedness present in many debate watchers. When these people watch entire debates, they may choose to ignore opposing viewpoints regarding topics about which they've already made up their minds, but at least they're exposed to these opposing viewpoints. If more and more people are electing to pick and choose what pieces of the debates they'd like to see, then it will become less and less likely for watchers on each side of the political spectrum to challenge what they already believe.

WANTED (Dead or Alive): Modern Political Debate

While I can’t say that I was overly thrilled with or impressed by Rick Tyler’s discussion, I was intrigued by what he had to say about political debate reform. But before I delve into his propositions, let me begin by affirming my overwhelming dislike for the modern concept of a political debate. Every time I sit down to watch a debate (which is rare, sporadic, and generally only within a month of an election), I find that by the end of the night I’m just as disappointed as I’d expected. Rarely, if ever, do I gain insight into a candidate’s character, or learn something about them that I couldn’t have read, verbatim, from their campaign website. Usually each candidate is allowed so many seconds to respond to a carefully crafted and premeditated question that doesn’t come from their opponent, but rather, from an unaffiliated third party. Is this crazy, or am I?? I want to see the candidates and the candidates alone conversing with each other, asking the tough questions, and being capable of coming up with the clever answers on the spot. Leave the mediator at home, please. Cut the strict time limits and the tedious rules. I want to see a raw presentation of the person who could potentially be the next “leader of the free world,” (as Tyler referred to it through thinly veiled conservativism).

This brings me to Tyler’s theory of debate reform. Though he devoted a shockingly small portion of his speech to this topic (the drawings on the blackboard didn’t suffice for me), I thought he made some valid points. First of all, I agree, to an extent, that political debate between members of the same party can seem redundant and overtly liberal or conservative. I do not, however, think that this type of debate should be eliminated from the campaign process altogether. I think that this type of debate is fundamental and crucial for each party in determining who is best suited for the race, but I think there is definitely room for reform. Tyler went on to suggest that political debate should consist of one candidate from each party, on a stage, partaking in a healthy, unscripted, unsupervised debate. I definitely agree with this theory, and I look forward to the day that this debate takes place. However, I want to add to this dream and suggest that every candidate, and yes that includes candidates of the somewhat taboo parties such as the Libertarian or Green Party, be a participant in our nation’s notorious prime time debates. I think that all candidates, regardless of the status of their membership in mainstream parties, are deserving of our country’s attention and time. Needless to say, I hope to see in 2008 a variety of candidates in the debate scene, and with any luck, a lot less of the unnecessary mediator.

Not so revolutionary protest

A handful of protests were staged over the past few days in D.C. The protests were aimed at a slew of issues, including the war in Iraq and climate change, according to the Washington Post. Of course, dissident voices from the public are an important element of meaningful political debate; but, with so few palpable consequences, you really have to weigh the merits of public demonstration.

This isn't to say public involvement is futile, but frankly, an organized march in downtown D.C. just seems like old hat. Nothing is less revolutionary than a well-planned gathering. According to the Post, Monday's protest at Capitol Hill resulted in 59 arrests -- that's at least 59 people who care enough about the issues to put themselves at the hands of police. But how much news coverage did the protest result in?

The news media is supposed to provide the public with information they need to make decisions in their lives (according to a journalism professor here at AU. Thanks.) So, does the lack of coverage of these protests indicate that the news media doesn't think they're important? Can the public go on with their lives without knowing about them?

Maybe so. When there's seemingly (and sometimes literally) another protest every week, it's not really newsworthy. Maybe it's time for the public to use more creative methods for getting dissident voices heard. It seems to me that the Internet is a much more effective platform for protest. Sure, you can't replicate the visual of thousands of people coming together for a cause, but these days, who even cares to look?

Colbert '08

Last Tuesday, comedian Stephen Colbert announced that he was running for President in South Carolina on his late-night show The Colbert Report. A clip of his appearance with Jon Stewart (in which he spoke of running) can be watched at
Colbert will be running under both the Republican and Democratic parties in his home-state and, providing he files the correct paperwork by November 1st, will appear on the ballot.
While his sudden foray into the world of politics isn't necessarily surprising, it's definitely a humorous turn to the 2008 presidential elections. Stephen Colbert is not a serious candidate for the coveted title of Commander-In-Chief. He has said, since announcing his intentions to run, that he doesn't want to be elected President—he simply wants to run for President. When asked who will be his running-mate, he suggested such politicians as Larry Craig, who was recently embroiled in a sex scandal.
The candidacy of Stephen Colbert is, sadly enough, not going to impact the outcome of the actual elections in the slightest. It is his way of poking fun at the absurdity that is the American political machine. Constitutionally, there is nothing about Stephen Colbert that makes him unfit to be President. I personally think he could bring a much-needed sense of humor that is currently lacking from the presidency. A shift of perspective from politician to comedian might help revitalize the political infrastructure in the White House.
Stephen Colbert is truly a candidate without any political bias—the only views he represents are his own. His ultra-conservative caricature serves to both make fun of Democrats and Republicans. His goals are best put in his own words: “If, at the Democratic National Convention, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘the proud state of South Carolina, the palmetto state, the home of the greatest peaches and shrimp in the world, casts one vote for native son, Stephen Colbert,’ I’d say I won.”