20/20 Has Slanted Vision

A privilege that comes with running one of the largest grassroots voter registration campaigns in the U.S. is occasionally being invited to speak for the youth voter movement itself. So when producers from ABC’s 20/20 called and said they were putting together a segment (view or read the segment) that would ask whether attracting new voters to the electorate was a good thing or not, we eagerly agreed to represent the “pro” side of the argument.

In preliminary interviews, the producers showed great enthusiasm for our viewpoint. We argued that democracy is, by definition, inclusive and functions best when involving the broadest number of citizens. We argued that the notion of only an educated elite deciding who should lead is an age-old idea that is still championed today in totalitarian regimes, but that one only needs to look toward the stark differences in quality of life between those countries and ours to support the merits of a republic where all individuals have equal say.

When we were told that John Stossel would be conducting the on-air interview, it probably should have alerted us that the final segment would be more of an editorial representing a contrarian view than a piece of actual journalism that strived for quality. But in extensive conversations with the producers, we were promised a balanced piece.

So when the producers then explained they’d been doing “man on the street” interviews testing people’s knowledge about the election, and would like to conduct some at one of the concerts where we register voters, we were more than happy to help. We suggested several concerts on our schedule, and they selected the festival Camp Bisco, hosted by our co-chair Marc Brownstein.

When the camera crew began an afternoon of shooting these interviews, something pretty funny happened. The producer, Harvard graduate Andrew Sullivan, read a list of questions from a piece of paper – “How many states are there? Who is the vice president? How many Senators are there? What is Roe v. Wade?” The first interviewee answered some correctly, some incorrectly. Sullivan then came to the next question on his list – how many years a member of the U.S. House of Representatives serves in each term. The interviewee answered “two.” Sullivan, with a smug smile, said “No, it’s actually four.”

“Uhm,” I said uncomfortably. “It’s two.” He shook his head no, insisting it’s four. Was this really happening? I mean, were we actually going to debate this? One of our volunteers went to his Blackberry to verify, but that was farcical in itself. The answer was obviously two and has been since the birth of our country. The fact that an ABC producer was reading off a sheet of questions and had it wrong was just – well comedy and tragedy all at once. We corrected him and moved on. According to Stossel’s argument, Sullivan should not vote (we respectfully disagree).

We then spent several hours interviewing fans as they came to the concert. They were not, as the ABC piece would falsely assert, people we registered to vote. They were simply entering the concert grounds. Some answered almost all the questions correctly. Some knew very little. Interestingly, the segment that aired on ABC showed interviewees struggling with two of the questions that the majority of people answered correctly (all but two people, out of dozens, knew how many states there are, and most were familiar with Roe. V. Wade). Not surprisingly, the question about how many years a U.S. Rep serves for never made it to the air.

In hindsight, it was naïve of us to believe that 20/20 would do anything but use the worst interviews of the dozens at their disposal. The purpose of the segment was to entertain, not to win any awards. The goal is to generate ratings and probably nothing more. And it’s certainly more entertaining to watch someone get stumped than correctly recite a 7th grade government lesson.

The fact that ABC quizzed people on civics and not their awareness of issues in this election pointed to just how tone deaf Stossel and his crew are. Had they asked how young people felt about the economy, the War in Iraq, and the environment, they may have gotten a very different reaction. Their little “test” was more an indictment of the American education system than a cogent or credible argument against voting.

That aside, what the segment did not properly represent is how seriously HeadCount takes the education piece of our mission. They left out, for instance, that we printed and distributed 10,000 voter guides. They even chopped up a quote from Brownstein where he acknowledge that there are large numbers of uninformed voters, but cut off the next sentence where he detailed our efforts to educate as well as sign people up – the classic “out of context quote” that’s a sign of weak, and agenda-ridden, reporting.

But we conclude by pointing out that, if indeed we accept the notion that the electorate and particularly young voters are not as well informed as we’d hope, it only speaks to the need for organizations like HeadCount that encourage civic engagement. Voting is, almost by definition, the first and most inclusive step a citizen can take toward participating in democracy. HeadCount addresses those who may not see politics as personally relevant to them, and reminds them that in this country we all have a voice and that people have died to defend our rights to use it. On Election Day, over 100 million Americans will vote, and more than 10 million of them will be young voters age 18 to 24. Some will have spent the last few months voraciously reading blogs and consuming cable news and come to the polls with deep knowledge about the issues. For others, voting will be a lone act of civic engagement. But HeadCount aims to create an environment in the live music community that encourages them to do more. We try to make the issues of the day part of the ongoing conversation among music fans, and weave that into the social fabric of our community. This is a long process that will take many years to fully bear fruit. The first step – registering 100,000 voters – is near completion. Post election, you’ll see us take on new initiatives that use music as a platform that inspires people to get more involved and politically active.

John Stossel has carved out a niche for himself as an independent-minded reporter whose shining moment came more than 20 years ago when he got manhandled by a professional wrestler. Since then, he’s been in and out of the news from time to time, facing accusations of shoddy journalism. We are confident that regardless of the angle of the piece and the opinions Stossel espoused, that most Americans will recognize that young voters have a great deal at stake in this election and will be serving the greater good by making their voices heard on Election Day.