...And the trend toward liveblogging or Twittering or texting or otherwise commenting in, or near, real-time on these television debates has the potential to make changes, as well. Now, instead of worrying about how they look or what they say, what image they project or what soundbite will be played in an endless loop on CNN, the candidates have to come up with such things as "YouTube shots" or "combox fodder" for the bloggers and typing heads of the new media. Which means that watching the debates will seem increasingly like a foolish and painful waste of time--why put yourself through the agony of viewing ninety minutes of meaningless posturing and sentences which express no particular thought except to cram as many talking points as possible into Jim Lehrer's idea of two minutes, when you can painlessly scan a couple of your favorite blogs later to see what your favorite writers thought of it all, and maybe read a transcript?Okay, maybe we haven't come quite that far--but by all reports, George Stephanopoulos's attempt to interview John McCain using the increasingly popular Twitter was...less than impressive:
Hmm. Reading the speech or debate transcript, along with a journalist's comments. Perhaps we've come full circle.
Sadly, though, we haven't, because the new technology will probably make people's attention spans even shorter, so that before long debates will be conducted on wireless keyboards, and will consist of exchanges like this:
Dude, dude, dude.
George Stephanopoulos has proven he can interview a top politician via Twitter.
Now he should step away from his Blackberry, computer, iPhone, whatever, and drop, cold turkey, the notion of Twitter as an interview tool.
Walk away. No, run.
Using the messaging system Tuesday to interview Sen. John McCain, former presidential candidate and ranking politician, was a gimmick, nothing more.
It added nothing to the journalism discourse, other than to prove, perhaps to some wonk's eyes, that McCain, an admitted Internet neophyte, could do it.
Truth is, doing it via Twitter, rather than in person or on-camera, removed all emotion from the exchange.
Take this exchange, for example.
GStephanopoulos@SenJohnMcCain: Cheney said on CNN that Obama putting US at risk of new terror attack. Agree?
SenJohnMcCain@GStephanopoulos: Too early to draw that conclusion.
Wouldn't that exchange have been more meaningful on-camera, or with a longer e-mail or written narrative?
Instead, they were like high school kids texting each other across the cafeteria lunch table.
Want to do a solid interview? Leave Twitter out of it.
I couldn't agree more.
Sure, there are uses for Twitter (though not for me, personally--who has the time?). But those uses don't include thoughtful, meaningful dialog of the sort that characterizes a good interview; in fact, "Tell us about world peace in 140 characters or less," sounds like a parody of a beauty contest candidate interview question.
Of course, as the early-adopters play with all the new toys and gadgets, there's going to be a new category of "Fail," the Internet word for something gone completely awry. I think the McCain Twitter interview is a Twitter "fail," and can only wonder what, say, a Facebook or MySpace "fail" might look like (though those people who didn't get a job interview because their prospective employers read their MySpace pages and learned that the job applicant "parties hard" and "thinks weekend work sux..." come to mind).
As we develop more and more ways to communicate, we forget that it's important to have something to say. A face-to-face interviewer can tease out the idea behind a politician's tendency toward terse and noncommittal statements; a soundbite (soundbyte) interview where the politician can take refuge in short platitudes rendered in txtspch to make them even less meaningful than the spoken word.
Richard Huff, the author of the McCain/Stephanopolous Twitter article I cite above, has the best last word: "Let's pray Stephanopoulos doesn't discover Morse code next." Yes, let's.