It was billed as an “unedited and uncensored” face-off among Democratic presidential primary candidates, designed to “make political participation cool” for young people between the ages of 18 and 30. But the experts charged with questioning the candidates weren’t Dan Rather or Peter Jennings. They were young people themselves.
Four Pine Manor students joined 600 New England area youth selected to attend “America Rocks the Vote,” a live television forum with the candidates broadcast from historic Faneuil Hall in Boston on November 4, 2003. Seven other Pine Manor students received press credentials to cover the event as behind-the-scenes student reporters, joining 300 members of the national and worldwide press corps.
The event was co-sponsored by CNN and Rock the Vote, a national nonpartisan organization that works with youth to support civic engagement. Eight of the nine Democratic candidates were on hand to field questions from the young people, whose votes could make a difference in the 2004 presidential election. Boston was chosen as the site for the historic forum because it will host the Democratic national convention next summer and is home to numerous colleges and universities.
Pine Manor audience members and Social and Political Systems majors Page Ann Clarke and Victoria Brown, second-year student Molly McGuinness, and first-year student Rene Johnson were asked by CNN to submit questions for the candidates. Students from the Communication Program’s Media Writing class and the English Program’s Advanced Journalism class took photos, shot videos, and interviewed candidates, members of the press, and forum attendees.
Communication majors Antoinetta Palladino, Francesca Guerrero, Allison Morrisette, and Bethany Luker joined CO 240 classmates Psychology major Alyssa Wright and English majors Amanda Adamowicz and Ashley Randall in this unique opportunity to practice the craft of journalism. The team wrote a front-page story, feature stories, and an editorial for the Gator Gazette, the newspaper produced by the journalism class, as well as a script for a television news story.
The goal of CNN/The Rock the Vote town meeting was “to send a message to young Americans that their concerns are worthy of a forum,” according to CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, who moderated the November 4 event broadcast live to a national audience on CNN television and radio. Though many television viewers considered the event a step in the right direction, opinions among young people were divided on whether or not the goal of connecting young people to the political process had been reached.
The forum featured MTV-style videos preproduced by candidates’ staffs, designed to capture the attention of young people. The candidates, dressed in sweaters and shirtsleeves, answered audience questions directly during the debate and talked to the audience informally prior to the event and between commercial breaks.
Thousands of questions were generated in advance of the broadcast via the Internet, wireless devices, and from interviews with participants. The actual questions chosen covered a mix of light and serious issues, including topics that ranged from what type of computers the candidates’ used (“Mac or PC?”) to the candidates’ stands on gay rights, race, the economy, and the war in Iraq.
After the forum concluded, the candidates convened in the “spin room” to take questions from members of the press. The seven Pine Manor reporters—situated amidst a crush of fellow members of the press and numerous TV cameras—interviewed, photographed, and videotaped several candidates, as well as moderator Anderson Cooper and Jehmu Greene, national director of Rock the Vote.
The day after the forum, CNN reported very good national audience ratings, declared the event a success, and announced they may consider additional youth forums during the campaign. On campus the event was a hot topic, with Pine Manor students and faculty weighing in on the questions asked and how the TV production depicted college students.
“Though some of the questions touched on serious issues, there was simply not enough substance. In general, CNN stereotyped college students as incapable of comprehending serious political issues,” two student reporters wrote in an editorial for the Gator Gazette.
Several PMC classes used the event as a catalyst for discussions about the political process and how to best reach and involve young people. Second-year student Molly McGuinness thought some of the criticism was valid but added that overall the event was worthwhile. “Politics was being bandied about as it never has at Pine Manor. Whether it upset you or you were pleased to be there, it gave you a reaction.”
Social and Political Systems major Page Ann Clark was disappointed that the candidates didn’t address women’s issues. Though she is critical of certain aspects of the forum, Clark said “I’m even more passionate now about who I want in the presidency and what I want for myself.”
Wooing Youth Vote
All nine democratic candidates have been trying to reach young voters through active campaigns on the Internet. Though voters younger than 30 are large in numbers they have been a difficult group for candidates to reach in recent national elections.
The youth vote, which now accounts for a quarter of the voting-age population, is called a “gold mine of votes” by the Youth Vote Coalition. Political pundits say they are an available swing vote in a nation with the two major parties divided 50 percent/50percent. However, the turnout of young voters in recent elections has been low: in the 2000 elections, 36 percent of people ages 18 to 29 voted, in contrast to 67 percent of people ages 65–74.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that potential voters under age 30 said they’re not as interested in politics as their older counterparts. In contrast, another study released last October by the Harvard Institute of Politics found a reawakening of political interest on college campuses. The national survey of more than 1,000 18- to 24-year-old college students found that since 9/11 more students say they will vote, that politics is meaningful, and that their vote matters.
Fri, November 7, 2003
by Marilyn D. Pennell, Assistant Professor of Communication