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Insiders Voice Concern Over YouTube

Jonathan Singer / MYDD | August 21 2006

Following the recent George Allen flap, Ryan Lizza pens an article for The New York Times Week in Review relaying concerns that some of the most powerful inside-the-Beltway types have about the democratizing and decentralizing effect of YouTube.

But others see a future where politicians are more vapid and risk averse than ever. Matthew Dowd, a longtime strategist for President Bush who is now a partner in a social networking Internet venture, Hot Soup, looks at the YouTube-ization of politics, and sees the death of spontaneity.

"Politicians can't experiment with messages," Mr. Dowd said. "They can't get voter response. Seventy or 80 years ago, a politician could go give a speech in Des Moines and road-test some ideas and then refine it and then test it again in Milwaukee."

He sees a future where candidates must be camera-ready before they hit the road, rather than be a work in progress. "What's happened is that politicians now have to be perfect from Day 1," he said. "It's taken some richness out of the political discourse."

Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not known for her spontaneity, agrees.

"It is a continuation of a trend in which politicians have to assume they are on live TV all the time," Mr. Wolfson said. "You can't get away with making an offensive or dumb remark and assume it won't get out."

I'm not certain that it is such a terrible thing to put politicians on notice that they cannot speak out of both sides of their mouth, offering contradictory positions to different crowds. What's more, it's certainly beneficial to our political system to have tousands of citizen watchdogs, not just a handful of gatekeepers who control the most powerful positions in the political media. Lizza rightly notes that it's highly unlikely that the video of George Allen making (allegedly) racist comments would have ever reached Virginia voters in the pre-YouTube era. Similarly, video of Conrad Burns sleeping through a field hearing in Montana would not have reached the tens of thousands of people it has in just a few days had it not been for the power of YouTube.

Now, there can be detrimental effects to having candidates believe that they must always be "on", mainly that there is a tendency among today's politicians to become overly cautious in language and stick entirely to message (instead of embracing the spontaneity required to truly connect with voters). However, this trend began much earlier than the YouTube revolution, with the proliferation of 24-hour cable news stations causing politicians to be guarded long before YouTube was online (let alone political blogs).

But frankly, even though campaign staffers might spend more time at night fretting over the possibility that their candidate stumbled off message (as I have at times even in my modest campaign) and members of the elitist media worry that their monopoly over political reporting is in jeopardy, the fact that actual people outside of Washington and Manhattan have more of a say in our political process is great for our democracy.


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