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Reddit vs. CNN: My take

Here’s a comment I just posted to the list of questions asked CNN and Reddit asked of Bernie Sanders that I posted at Medium yesterday.

I don’t want to leave it there. I intended this comparison to be what I assume most people will take it as: a prod to consider how well a crowd can do under the right circumstances, as well as a provocative illustration of how godawful much political reporting is in this country. The Keilar interview was particularly bad but not weirdly bad, which tells us how low our expectations are at this point.

But I wouldn’t want people to assume that therefore all we need is Reddit (and sites like it). Some tweets have made the point that, for example, the redditors on the Sanders thread probably aren’t about to put their lives on the line in a war zone to bring us coverage. Nor are we seeing original reporting at Reddit of the quotidian news. Of course not. That’s not what Reddit is for. I take that as obvious, and the comments on this post indicate that the readers here do as well.

As with anything, Reddit is good at some things, not at others. The Sanders interview would not have been useful if Sanders had refused to answer the questions, or had turned all answers toward his preferred talking points. Reddit doesn’t have a good way of forcing politicians to respond, the way an expert TV interviewer can. That has a lot to do simply with the format of a TV or radio interview vs. Reddit: On TV, the candidate has nowhere to hide from the interviewer’s questions, whereas at Reddit a candidate can cherry-pick which questions to respond to. In such a case, the candidate will be exposed as an empty, frightened shell propped up by a will to power and a PR firm. It won’t be a good interview, but the candidate will at least be called on it…and far more directly than any professional journalist I’ve ever heard.

Reddit’s form has other weaknesses and virtues, of course. A huge weakness: the questions reflect the interests of the particular demographics that frequent Reddit, which is fine unless you’re trying to get a systematic overview or you don’t share those interests. That means Reddit can’t and shouldn’t be the only place a candidate gets interviewed.

On the positive side, at Reddit there’s no time/space limit on what the candidate wants to say. There’s no end of follow-up questions and analysis by the redditors in the thread that hangs off the candidate’s answers, even if the candidate chooses not to respond to those follow-ups.

Reddit and the Web are helping us to re-think some old assumptions. Relevant to this particular post, I’ll name just two. First, crowds in a proper conversational structure can do a surprisingly good job interviewing a candidate. (“Surprisingly” only if you haven’t been paying enough attention to Reddit, of course ?.) This has broader implications for our traditional culture of expertise. In a world that’s too big to know (yeah, that’s a plug), the deepest expertise now often lives in networks, not individuals.

Second, we are used to interviews being structured vertically: a series of Q’s followed by A’s that go in a first-to-last sequence. Reddit, along with much of the Web, adds horizontality, allowing for digressions driven purely by the interests of the participants. Those interests are often hugely digressive, sometimes shallow, and not infrequently hilarious. Good. That’s how we make sense of things and enjoy one another’s company. If it’s not your cup of tea, then just skip on down to the next question.

TL;DR: The Web is transforming our ideas about the nature and structure of knowledge, and Reddit should be raising our expectations about mainstream journalism.


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