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Previously in Web Citations:

Why (Some) Americans Hate the Internet

Attack ads come to the Web.

Pseudo Politics

Live from the sky box at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia.

Nothing to Fear

Sage Stossel looks at befearless.com, Oxygen Media's not-so-courageous venture into online politics.

On the Inside Looking In

Who are these people? And why would anyone pay $19.95 to read about them? Jane Rosenzweig on the strange logic of Inside.com.

A Channel Called "You"

Joanna Smith Rakoff looks at the latest in TV-Web convergence.

Leveling Mountains

David A. Taylor reports on the Mountain Forum, a boon to hill people around the globe.

Sucking Sounds

Is politics on the Web a bust? Nicholas Confessore investigates the new wave of for-profit "politics portals."

See the complete Web Citations index.

Canned Substance
October 11, 2000

Web, White, and Blue "Surely it is obvious," George F. Will wrote after the first televised encounter between Al Gore and George W. Bush, "that these misbegotten and misnamed 'debates' -- actually, parallel press conferences -- test no aptitude pertinent to the performance of serious presidential duties." Rarely do liberal journalists quote George F. Will approvingly, but on this occasion the Grandiloquent One had it right. What we saw last week really was two parallel press conferences. Read the official transcript (posted by the Commission on Presidential Debates) carefully, and you'll find that Gore merely rolled out his L.A. convention speech in 90-second chunks (one each for Social Security, Medicare, Saddam Hussein, heating oil, etc.), while Bush recycled the "compassionate conservative" stump speech that has undergone little alteration during the past year. Sure, there was substance: rehashed, pasteurized, and canned substance -- political Spam.

Among the supremely well-intentioned community of those who advocate "good government" -- the foundation and think-tank folks who sponsor congressional civility retreats and write op-eds attacking attack ads -- it is almost an article of faith that public life would benefit from more substantive, "real" exchange between candidates for public office. And it is the premise of a good number of politics and policy-oriented Web sites that the Internet can supplement and enrich such exchange. But a look at what's being offered online in the final weeks of the campaign season reveals just how low our expectations for political discourse have sunk.

Take, for example, Web, White, and Blue. Underwritten by the nonpartisan Markle Foundation and a consortium of seventeen news and politics sites, Web, White, and Blue is hosting what they call a "Rolling Cyber Debate." It features both a "Question of the Day" (selected from the online audience), to which each campaign responds, and a "Message of the Day" (audio, video, or text) from both campaigns, which is posted at around noon and followed a few hours later by a rebuttal from the other campaign. Similarly, the Freedom Channel, sponsored primarily by the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, offers dueling 90-second video spots from a different Senate or House race every day. In both cases, the idea is that head-to-head messages -- text or video -- delivered over the Web can approximate the live debates.

And they do. These online versions of debates are as pre-packaged, polished, and focus-group-tested as anything that came out of Gore's or Bush's well-rehearsed mouths last week. If the live debates are like parallel press conferences, the "rolling cyber debate" is more like a stream of parallel press releases. Literally. On October 2, Web, White, and Blue posted a Gore message introducing the thirteen ordinary citizens who volunteered to help the Vice President prepare for the debate. It looks an awful lot like a press release that the Gore campaign blasted to several thousand assorted reporters, friends, and well-wishers on September 29. And the Freedom Channel's video clips aren't much different from the "pro" half of a standard campaign ad -- the part where the picture goes from a black-and-white shot of the candidate's sweating opponent to a rosy, full-color shot of the candidate signing important legislation at a big oak desk with an American flag planted nearby.

Given how canned the online "debates" have proven to be, one might think voters should stick to watching the live debates on television, where at least there's the chance of something spontaneous happening. But the only real added value of TV is the opportunity to watch Gore and Bush being themselves -- Gore a little overbearing, Bush somewhat unsure of his own policy proposals -- and to hear dozens of post-debate pundits offering their instant take on who "won." If you already know that Gore is a little overbearing and Bush a little underwhelming, and if you prefer to get your punditry online, then there's no need to watch the debates on TV. Last week CNN's site featured Bill Press and Tucker Carlson providing, in CNN's words, "instant spin" (multiple-inverse-irony having stripped the term "spin" of its derogatory qualities) in a moderated chatroom, accompanied by a scrolling, real-time transcript of the debate. The repartee was witty, invigorating -- and as utterly vapid as what usually passes for informed commentary on television.

--Nicholas Confessore

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Election 2000 conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

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Nicholas Confessore is a staff writer at The American Prospect and a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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