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What About The Candidates?

Media criticism oftentimes boils down to a "chicken" or "egg" argument, but often at the fever pitch of those old "Less Filling, Tastes Great" ads.

That came to mind when I read the Washington Post's Outlook section this weekend, and looked over Naomi Wolf's piece about how young people don't understand capital-D Democracy.

According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 47 percent of high school seniors have mastered a minimum level of U.S. history and civics, while only 14 percent performed at or above the "proficient" level. Middle schoolers in many states are no longer required to take classes in civics or government. Only 29 states require high school students to take a government or civics course, leaving millions of young Americans in the dark about why democracy matters.

A survey released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in September found that U.S. high school students missed almost half the questions on a civic literacy test. Only 45.9 percent of those surveyed knew that the sentence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" is in the Declaration of Independence. Yet these same students can probably name the winner of "American Idol" in a heartbeat.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The "Dumbing Down of America." Amusing Ourselves to Death. We've seen this movie before. It stinks, but it's true – which, yes, twists that knife even deeper.

That sense only got worse when I saw CNN's commercial for tomorrow night's YouTube Republican Debate.

The motto – splashed across the TV screen – came from a Los Angeles Times headline from 4 months ago: "Where the citizen is the star!!!"

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but when it comes to the process of electing the next leader of the free world, I'd rather the candidates be the focal points – or, in CNN's language, "the star!" – of the event.

Have we, dear readers, come to the point in 21st Century where we are so reality TV-obsessed and narcissistic that viewers will only tune into a political debate if there's a chance of seeing ourselves or a talking snowman or some other Gong Show reject?

It's bad enough that all the questions are vetted before hand – not to mention accessible to all the candidates (hello, open book test) so as to not shake up things too much, like Marty Kaplan wrote at the Huffington Post:

The 4,000+ videos are pawns; the questioners are involuntary shills, deployed by the network producers in no less deliberate, calculating and manipulative a fashion as the words and stories fed by teleprompters into anchors' mouths.
And it's not as if the body politic doesn't come up with incredibly thoughtful questions – even superior to the reporters themselves on occasion – as Slate observed yesterday:
You know it's 2007 when a candidate, in this case Mike Huckabee, holds a bifurcated conference call, first with reporters, then with bloggers. I listened in on both calls to see what the differences were. The reporters' questions were much more concise and polished. But the bloggers' questions were more substantive by a long shot.
The old adage goes that we don't get the leaders we want, but the leaders we deserve. However, it's clear that we – or at least a sizable chunk of us out here— want and deserve better; it's also clear that the only way the networks believe we'll tune into debates is to turn them into an improv show. And a fake one at that.

There's got to be a better way to elect a president. And engage us voters.