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The Medium is
The Message

Memo from The Trail

To: candidates and debate planners

Subject: the medium is the message

'Tis the season of the debating firsts. The first online video debate, co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube. The first online mash-up debate, courtesy of the Huffington Post, Yahoo and Slate (owned by The Washington Post Company). And later this month, the first instant messaging debate; viewers of the MySpace/MTV debate can send questions, in real time, via IM to the candidates.

Next up, the Twitter debate, Facebook debate, LinkedIn debate, Second Life debate . . . okay, we're getting ahead of ourselves. None of these are planned, not yet at least, but don't be surprised if yet another debate in a whole new format is announced.

Nothing but gimmicks here, a cynic could easily scoff. And the cynic would be partly right, though not entirely to the fault of the debate organizers. Hey, we're living in the YouTube-MySpace-Wikipedia world. We're all for innovations. But it seems that no matter the format, no matter the amount of online citizen participation, it's hard to knock politician out of their talking points. On her vote authorizing the Iraq war, Sen. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said: ". . . had I known then what I know now, obviously, I would never have voted to give [President Bush] the authority . . ." And this was the answer to HBO comedian Bill Maher, who asked, in his irreverent best, "George Bush fooled you. Why should Americans vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush?" The best part of the Q&A, in fact, was Clinton's elongated, crackling popcorn of a laugh -- before going on robo-mode in her response. Indeed, so far this new media-driven debate season, the candidates haven't successfully tailored their message to a Web audience.

The landmark 1960 Kennedy and Nixon duel, the first televised debate, forever changed American politics. At least how American politics is perceived by an audience. Image, clothes, body language, the hint of a smile, the sound of a sigh, all that matters. (It should be noted that those watching the debate on TV thought the charismatic, camera-ready Kennedy won. But Nixon, sweating profusely on camera, was the winner to the ears of radio listeners.) And of course it gave jobs to an ocean of communication consultants whose primary job is to make politicians TV-ready.

But the Internet, the medium of the people -- at least those with a high-speed Internet connection -- is shattering the divide that's long separated politicians from their constituencies.

The audience wants to share the stage, and candidates looking to take advantage of a shifting media landscape need to change their tune.

And, by the way, one reference worth checking out that's relevant to the new digital media landscape (and also the title of this memo.) "The Medium is the Message." Marshall McLuhan. Read it.

-- Jose Antonio Vargas

By Washington Post editors  |  September 14, 2007; 5:19 PM ET
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