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Independent Media Producer and Vlogger: Lessons I learned from having my question asked - then reframed, then dodged - on the CNN/YouTube presidential debate

smackleys Icon Posted by Stephanie Mackley

July 26th, 2007

[UPDATE: Stephanie has joined WIMN’s Voices as a house vlogger, so we’ve switched the designation of this post from “Guest Blogger” to her own page on the blog. However, if you’re stumbling on this now, the text below was prepared by Women In Media & News, hence referring to Stephanie in the third person.]

On Monday, vlogger and independent media producer Stephanie Mackley’s question about energy consumption was posed to the Democratic candidates during the CNN/YouTube presidential debate.

After Jennifer L. Pozner wrote about Mackley’s question in her WIMN’s Voices critique of the pitfalls and possibilities of using new media tools to affect the tone and content of standard corporate media scripts, Women In Media & News invited Mackley to record a guest vlog post about how her fifteen minutes of participatory-democracy-fame came to be, what she thought about CNN’s and YouTube’s selection criteria for debate questions, why she was motivated to ask the candidates about policy positions that could impact national energy consumption, whether she was satisfied with the politicians’ answers, her reaction to Anderson Cooper’s ironic reframing of her question away from political policy and collective accountability and onto individual “personal sacrifice,” and what advice she has for other women who may be interested in video blogging.

Check her out — and heed her advice at the end:

[See below for a transcript of this video. ]

Guest Blogger Stephanie Mackley is currently working with Promises Films on a documentary film project entitled Global Moms. She makes web videos for social and environmental justice organizations and is hoping to encourage more women to become political video bloggers. Her YouTube channel is at www.youtube.com/ssmackley.

Stephanie welcomes your comments and questions below.

TRANSCRIPT: Independent Media Producer and Vlogger: Lessons I learned from having my question asked - then reframed, then dodged - on the CNN/YouTube presidential debate

By Stephanie Mackley

Up until a month ago, I had never posted a blog, let alone a video blog, anywhere on the internet. I had been lurking around on YouTube for awhile, checking out old Sesame Street segments I remembered from when I was 5 or checking out Jon Stewart shows I had missed, but it wasn’t until I saw something soliciting questions for the CNN/YouTube presidential debates that I was motivated to pick up my camera.

I was inspired to ask a question about energy consumption because I’m sick of the typical media and political spin on the energy issue, which always creates a panacea for us like wind and solar energy when in reality, if we don’t decrease our consumption, none of those solutions will matter. So I picked up my camera, I headed to my bathroom and I asked a question:

[Excerpt from video question] “How is the United States going to decrease its energy consumption in the first place? In other words, how will your policies encourage Americans, rather than just using special lightbulbs, to do this?” [turn out the lights]

Little did I know that of all the 3000 questions submitted, mine would be one of the 39 that aired on CNN. But first I’d like to talk about the main thing with which I was concerned in this whole process—how the questions would be selected in the first place.

The whole point of YouTube is that it’s a free for all. And the whole point of submitting questions was that all of us could view each other’s questions and vote on them and yet YouTube was disabling that normal ability that we’re all used to. Then I got an email from a YouTube user who had taken the initiative to set up a home page called Community Counts where anyone could vote for whether a particular question should be asked whether they were a YouTube user or not. I thought this was a fantastic solution and was curious to see whether CNN would pick up on it or use some of the information from it.

So I tuned in to the CNN/YouTube debate pre-show that was hosted by CNN and waited with baited breath for any moment where they might tell us how our questions were being selected. During an interview with Anderson Cooper, he did bring up this process, showing us video of a room at CNN where around 6 people were tirelessly working to select videos. There was only one woman in this group of people. And Anderson revealed nothing about their selection criteria. When asked if there was any sort of democratic website where anyone could vote for these questions, Anderson said that he was aware of some such site, and yet the top question voted for there was something about whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cyborg, and then he laughed.

In other words, CNN doesn’t believe in democracy. Anderson’s cooking up a scenario here where if the selection of the questions were left to the masses, we would have a whole debate about cyborgs. So thank goodness CNN is at the helm of this whole thing. Who knows what chaos would ensue if the general public were actually allowed to choose media content.

After having watched the pre-show and being so infuriated by Anderson’s disregard of the democratic process that had been set up on the internet, I decided to document my discontent in video form, and posted another video to my channel on YouTube:

[Excerpt from pre-show critique video]“Of the top 30 voted for questions on David Colarusso’s democratic voting page, where anyone can vote for a question to be answered tonight, 6 out of the top 30 questions are about impeachment. The number one question on that site is about impeachment. I have a prediction that there will be no questions tonight about impeaching either George Bush or Dick Cheney and that concerns me…”

So now it’s the big day and I cozy up onto my couch to watch the debates. Lo and behold, about halfway in, there’s my question. I had barely recovered from my screaming and jumping around to hear Senator Dodd’s attempt to answer my question and then proceeded to just float through the rest of the debates, staring at the screen and realizing that the Democratic Presidential Candidates had actually been responding to a question that I had posed. I was on a cloud.

So I recorded a video response and posted it on my channel in which I was extremely jubilant, to say the least.

[Excerpt from post-debate reaction video] “[Stephanie screams into the camera] Um, I’m still getting over my excitement, obviously.”

Then came the unexpected media coverage. I did an interview for the Huffington Post. My best friend actually heard an excerpt of me screaming from my video that I’d recorded on NPR, and I read Jennifer Pozner’s blog post covering the debates and specifically analyzing my question and the answer it had been given. Until that point, I was so thrilled to have simply been able to ask the question that I hadn’t fully processed that my question was never fully answered. In turn, as Jennifer pointed out and as I watched the footage again, I realized that Anderson Cooper reframed my question twice, making it impossible for the candidates to answer it. Immediately after my question was asked, Anderson Cooper said, “Senator Gravel, how do you get Americans to conserve?” which immediately shifted the question from being about a collective solution in terms of policy to “How can individual Americans do something different?” Then Gravel and Dodd attempted to answer the policy question. Anderson actually interrupted them and said, “No, the question was about personal sacrifice,” again, way off the mark and completely destroying the integrity of my question.

Once I had come down from my cloud enough to realize what Andersen had done with my question and the impact that had on the candidates answering of my question, I was more interested in the fact that it had taken me a full day to realize that my question had not been answered. Of all people, I think I would be critical of this whole process because I make documentary films. I also record web videos for social justice organizations to convey their mission and their message in video form. And I’ve long been a champion of independent media and a critic of corporate media, so I would figure that this is something I would definitely pick up on. I think its particularly telling that just seeing myself on the screen on CNN posing a question was enough to get me excited and completely lose my critical eye for the whole process. I now realize, wait a minute, I am being let in but only to a degree. I’m being let in enough to start a discussion, which CNN and Anderson Cooper get to tweak in whatever direction they would like. Not to mention the fact that a presidential candidate can place whatever spin on the question they want in order to ask the question they wish I would have asked.

The aspect of the debates that I was openly critical about even amidst my celebration was that the vast majority of the questions I saw were asked by men. I double-checked these figures and found that of the 39 questions selected by CNN, 11 of those were asked by women. I also ran across a page that a YouTube user had posted where he analyzed all of the questions up until the point that about 2200 had been asked. He found that of those 2200, about 550 had been asked by women. That means that of the questions submitted, a little over 23% were submitted by women at that point. But that doesn’t let CNN off the hook because obviously out of 3000 questions asked, the producers at CNN can certainly reflect a gender balance in the questions and find 20 by women and 20 by men.

That said, I wish there had been more women who had submitted videos to the debates. And I’ve also found that on YouTube there are not as many women political video bloggers that I would expect. So I’d love it if you would add your voice to this discussion. It’s a relatively easy thing to do. All you need is a computer and a way to record digital video. And if you don’t have either one of those things, I’m sure that there’s and indpendent media center or cable access television station near you that would be happy to help. You can also always email me because I would love to get you started. The thing I’d hope that you would take away from this is that you can have a huge impact on the media discussion with relatively little effort. I posted my very first video a month ago and have since seen it on CNN as a question posed to the Democratic presidential candidates. So it’s not as difficult as you would think to add your own voice to the public debate that we’re having about the presidential candidates right now or any political topic. And you might end up influencing the debate in ways that you never imagined.

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