Twitter vs. Question Time

D.C. is stuck. Democrats, even with a huge majority in Congress and a hold on the White House, can’t seem to figure out how to pass health care reform, or even whether they should. Republicans are using their minority to block anything that has a Democrat’s fingerprints on it. The fracture between the two parties seems to have become a gaping canyon that can never be crossed and which opens up in every piece of legislation, often swallowing it whole.

Both a cause and a symptom of our strange political environment is the worship of the sound bite. If a politician dare open his or her mouth, those words will be immediately recorded, taken out of context, packaged, and distributed globally in the 24-hour news cycle. Words are the greatest weapon to be used against an opponent and they are always shortened and sharpened like an arrowhead.

Twitter is the ultimate incarnation of the sound bite world we live in. Don’t misunderstand me — I am a regular user and believe that it has many positive applications, particularly in politics: it is an easy way to spread information, a direct line between leaders and constituents, an enormous discussion board. But Twitter demands that its users speak in 140 character blurbs, mirroring the 30-second sound bite afforded our elected leaders. I find myself listening to interesting speeches or reading well-written op-eds while scanning for that one phrase that I can copy and paste into Twitter. I want to boil the basic point down to something that fits in the 140-character box to pass on to my followers.

This often leaves us little room for “nuance, flexibility, pragmatism — even a full range of human emotions,” as put by Richard W. Stevenson in a recent New York Times article about President Obama’s State of the Union address. It’s hard to explain a complex stance on a complicated issue when your words are only repeated in 140 characters or 30-second doses. Stevenson’s question is a fair one: “Is it possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?”

Obama recently took this question on by venturing into the dangerous territory of the House Republican retreat and taking direct questions from his opponents, all on-camera. It was a brilliant move, because it gave him the time and space to have a debate and elaborate on what he thinks and why. In reaction to this unscripted, lengthy and riveting conversation, a group of bipartisan political figures and bloggers have begun calling for “Question Time”. What they envision is the President regularly taking questions from Congress in the way that the British Prime Minister appears before the House of Commons for open question forums. Nate Silver, on his blog FiveThirtyEight, explained his reason for joining the Question Time movement: “[I]t seems to me that there is a need for conversations that are not staged, that are not reduced to 30-second soundbytes, and that are not filtered through the lens of the media.”

But what they miss is that no event goes unfiltered. It is a bit ironic that this movement is seeking to escape the sound bite world by spreading its message on Twitter — by using the trending hashtag #questiontime, for example. Their sentiment is worthy, but can Question Time really escape the Twitterization, sound bite machine that is our news consumption? Obama’s GOP retreat debate was, after all, live-tweeted by many, with the juicy morsels pulled out and posted in that limited box. Indeed, in response to the calls for Question Time, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters, “[P]art of the reason Friday [the House retreat Q&A] was so successful with the GOP conference was the spontaneity that occurred there. And it is going to be hard to recreate the spontaneity that happened.” It seems clear that even something as seemingly pure as a regular open forum will eventually be whittled down to digestible pieces, not just by the 24-hour news. Even these bloggers and Twitterers themselves now partake in the sound bite system.

Perhaps, then, the answer can’t lie in escaping the sound bite, the 140-character Twitter post, and the 24-hour news cycle that will record it and repeat it over and over again. Democrats have to get savvy about being sound bite friendly. Republicans have to partake in the political process even while they create their sound bites. And they should all probably look into creating Twitter accounts.

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