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Bloggers' Roundtable: YouTube Debate, 'Ghetto Mess'

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Bloggers' Roundtable: YouTube Debate, 'Ghetto Mess'

Digital Life

Bloggers' Roundtable: YouTube Debate, 'Ghetto Mess'

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The pen is arguably mightier than the sword, but the tippety-tap of the blogosphere might be mightier than the pen. We've got our weekly Bloggers' Roundtable and plenty to talk about.

Democratic presidential hopefuls feel that questions from YouTube, America's first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota is in hot water. He made comments about Adolf Hitler and the Bush administration.

And BET's provocative new show "Hot Ghetto Mess," well, it used to be "Hot Ghetto Mess," gets a name change.

With us today is freelance writer and novelist Angela Winters. Her political blog is Politopics. Christopher Rabb is a social commentator and founder of the blog, Afro-Netizen. He's also a netroots activist, and we'll explain what it is in a minute. Finally, we've got Avery Tooley, a public educator. His blog is Stereo Describes My Scenario.

Welcome everybody. And, Avery, I just - what Public Enemy's song is that from?

Mr. AVERY TOOLEY (Public Educator; Founder, Stereo Describes My Scenario): That's from - now, you got me frozen - that's from the "Prophets of Rage."

CHIDEYA: Yeah. I totally listen to a lot of PE.

But, anyway, want to move on to the YouTube debate. Monday night, the Democratic presidential candidates met in Charleston, South Carolina, to once again debate the issues. And this time they answered video questions from many Americans submitted to CNN by YouTube. Now, they got 3,000 entries, only 30 made the cut. The topics were generally pretty typical, but here's one video that stood out.

(Soundbite of CNN-YouTube debate clip)

Mr. JERRY TOWNSEND (Resident, Clio, Michigan): My name is Jerry Townsend from Clio, Michigan. To all the candidates, tell me your position on gun control as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe. This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views.

CHIDEYA: All right, we should mention that, at this point, Jerry pulls out what looks like a huge automatic riffle, and Anderson Cooper moderates the debate that follows.

(Soundbite of CNN-YouTube debate clip)

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Moderator, CNN-YouTube debate): Governor Richardson, you have one of the highest NRA ratings.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): The issue here, I believe, is instant background checks. Nobody who has a criminal background or is mentally ill should be able to get a weapon. That is the key. And that includes gun sales.

Mr. COOPER: Senator Biden, are you going to be able to keep his baby safe?

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): I tell you what, if that's his baby, he needs help.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

CHIDEYA: All right, Christopher, that was quite a moment. What do you think of that whole format of the video dialogue and of the answers?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER RABB (Founder, Afro-Netizen): Well, it's one heck of a start. I'll say that. I think that mainstream media have finally validated new media and that that began in 2004 since the Democratic convention. But I would say they could have gone a lot further and probably should have to get the type of blog cred that they so desperately want to have.

CHIDEYA: Now, the ratings have been pretty great. Angela, is this a gimmick or is this the future?

Ms. ANGELA WINTERS (Founder, Politopics): I actually think it's a way - I think it's the future. But I think that they just need to clean it up like with every mixture of technology. In the beginning, it looks a little sloppy. It's a little bit more about entertainment than substance, which is okay at this stage in the campaign. But as we get closer to the election, they're going to have to clean it up. But eventually, I think, that once you reach that realm of technology, it's - you're not going back.

CHIDEYA: Avery, what are the advantages of people submitting questions by something like YouTube? Is it more democratic in a way? Or, you know, because a lot of times folks show up at these debates, and they're picked out of the audience after a pre-interview. Is this better or worse than that in terms of letting people express themselves?

Mr. TOOLEY: I think that, to a certain extent, it's better because it does allow for a more democratic voice. However, given the so-called digital divide, I think that there are still segments of the population who may not be able to participate just yet. But I think that, as more people have computer access and more broadband access, then it will be more comprehensive for all of us.

CHIDEYA: So more Web cams in the hood?

Mr. TOOLEY: Yes.

CHIDEYA: All right. Christopher, I'm going to go back to you. We're talking politics and you talk about netroots activism. What is that? And how is it going to impact the election?

Mr. RABB: Well, first and foremost, the expression netroots is a fairly new jargon and term online, which means grassroots activism, online or grassroots activism as facilitated by Web technologies for the benefit of offline activity. So it's both.

And netroots activism manifests itself in various ways. Probably, the biggest example of netroots activism is Move On, which was largely e-mail-based, sending around tons of e-mails, asking people to sign online petitions and so forth, raising googabs of money from all kinds of people. They kind of put netroots activism on the map, a part of that had to do with electoral matters that PowerDigm(ph) benefited from. And then more recently, there is a merging group of fairly anonymous black netroots activists, who are doing all kinds of things online to facilitate offline activity and activism in the form of keeping black institutions accountable to black folks such as the Congressional Black Caucus.

CHIDEYA: Now, I want to transition, Angela, to another topic. In politics, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota is at the center of a controversy two weeks ago. He gave a speech criticizing the Bush administration's policies. He also had this to say.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): 9/11 is the juggernaut we've had in American history, and it allows - I mean, it's almost like, you know, the Reichstag fire, it kind of reminds me of that. Does anybody know what I'm talking about?

Unidentified Man: Yes. I do. (unintelligible) benefited from 9/11.

Rep. ELLISON: Well, I mean, you know, you and I both know.

Unidentified Man: That voice(ph).

Rep. ELLISON: But the thing is, is that, you know, after the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the communists for it, and it put the leader of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.

CHIDEYA: Now, he's comparing 9/11 to the destruction of the German parliament in the 1930s. Hitler used that to justify seizing emergency powers and control of the country. Angela, is this a fair comparison or was Ellison way off the mark?

Ms. WINTERS: I think he was off the mark. I mean, it was a little disappointing. I wasn't as offended as it seems like to other groups were. I know the ADL came down on him very hard. But I think that, you know, this happens every three months in politics where somebody creates some kind of comparison to Nazism or slavery. And, you know, maybe, from a philosophical standpoint, it does work. But it does not work in the public. And it's something that people should stay away from, and I would have expected him to be smarter than that.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League that deals with issues of Judaism and how Jewish people are treated in the U.S. and around the world.

Now, Ellison has since apologized. He made a great point of saying, look, I'm a supporter of fighting for the legacy of the Holocaust to be intended today. Do you think that he was put, Christopher, in a defensive position by this?

Mr. RABB: Oh, absolutely. I actually don't know what the controversy is. From what I interpreted, he was saying that the events of the aftermath of 9/11 put Bush - the Bush administration in an advantageous position to do what essentially is done thereafter. I mean, that seemed pretty factual to me.

So I really - and also I'm wondering what the ADL would have a problem with exactly because I don't perceive this as an anti-Jewish statement. And I'm also concerned that the fact that he is of a Muslim faith, how that's relevant at all to his usage of that allusion. I don't understand.

CHIDEYA: Well, in his apology or his statement, he talks about not intending any direct comparison, and I'm quoting him, "between the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany and the current administration," but he also says that he stands by the idea that this undermined our civil liberties, the response to 9/11. So is that nuance enough, Avery, to really save face?

Mr. TOOLEY: No, I don't think so. I think that in some cases it may be, but I think for the majority of people, once you say Hitler, that's all they're going to hear.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Mr. TOOLEY: So, I think that limits this argument.

Mr. RABB: Well, I think also, though - I don't know if ADL is the standard bearer for a black folk, and I think black folks have to keep the ADL and other institutions accountable. And so I think we have to be really careful about who we validate ourselves among because, you know, if that's the organization to which I have to be held accountable or scrutinized by to be validated as someone who's not a nutball, I think, is what Ellison referred to, then, you know, I'm in deep trouble and so are a lot of people who identify themselves as progressive humanitarians.

CHIDEYA: I want to flip on to a new topic. This is completely different. A few weeks ago, we talked about a new show on BET that premieres tonight. It's based on a Web site and called "Hot Ghetto Mess," or it used to be. After blogs and advertisers took a bite out of the yet-to-launch show, BET had a change of mind, but only about the title. It's now called "We Got To Do Better." Inspirational, ha? Take a listen.

(Soundbite of show, "We Got To Do Better")

Mr. CHARLES MURPHY (Actor): (As Himself) They're not here to make fun of anybody or black as we are, but we never pass judgment on anybody. But let's face it, some of your friends and family are straight up a hot ghetto mess.

(Soundbite of car revving up)

Mr. MURPHY: (As Himself) How many continents are there on the planet Earth?

Unidentified Man #1: I'm going to go with 20, but I only (unintelligible) at number three.

Mr. MURPHY: (As Himself) What continent is Africa on?

Unidentified Man #2: I really don't know all of that.

Mr. MURPHY: (As Himself) When did slavery official ends and what year?

Unidentified Man #3: It's ended?

Unidentified Woman: Let's challenge ourselves to do better in our lives and do better in our community. We've got to do better.

CHIDEYA: Now, that was a clip from a DVD by the creator of "Hot Ghetto Mess," Jam Donaldson. That was a sort of precursor to the show. So Angela, you got a title changed, but not a content change. Is this going to mollify anybody?

Ms. WINTERS: I think that it's sort of like putting perfume on a skunk. I think that people who have decided they're tired of seeing the single image of the black community aren't going to be appeased at all by changing the title. They're saying that this is - the intent is to show what we're not supposed to do, but - that's really not the substance of the show. We actually watched the show and I watched clips of that but I haven't watched an episode from beginning to end.

There's no lesson as to why this is a negative image or why this is probably something we shouldn't do. It's just meant for humor. I mean, I think the big issue here is that black people in America are just - we want more variety. And I think that if there are more positive images of us on television, this wouldn't bother us so much, but I don't think that the people who are upset about it are going to change their mind.

CHIDEYA: Now, Avery, this kind of controversy has led to rating gains for shows like "Jerry Springer," where arguably you have one of the more integrated shows with people who are at "Hot Ghetto Mess," who are white and black and everything else. Is this going to get BET big ratings?

Mr. TOOLEY: I think it may. I think that - I remember the Web site from when it very first started because I've looking at it for a very long time. And it did start out initially as just plain humor and it has tried to develop a conscience and - but bearing that in mind, I think that people will tune in to see what people are going to do next.

CHIDEYA: Christopher, there has been, you know, a long tradition in the African-American community of saying, let's act extra, extra, extra good so that we don't attract the disapproval of the larger America. Are we too sensitive about this? Is this carrying forth some baggage? Should we be able to laugh at this?

Mr. RABB: I think if you're in a position of power, you can be able to laugh at it. But if you're on the receiving end, you know, there are people who work hard, who have two and three jobs, who are supporting families, who are living, who are - the working poor, who, you know, now are being lumped into anyone who lives in the ghetto or acts in a certain way is somehow dehumanized, is the butt of a joke.

And I think this is the ultimate form of internalized racism and classicism that honestly is the extreme of a lot of the controversial remarks that Bill Cosby made. That we can air all of our dirty laundry and we can put all of these at the seats of largely poor black people. Now, I think it's one of the foulest representations of media capitalism I've seen in a long time. And I think we should change the name to "Hot Viacom Mess."

CHIDEYA: So, Angela, just very briefly before we let all of you go, is this something that reflects people's desires, and if so, is this just a reflection of the free market?

Ms. WINTERS: I think so, it is. I don't know if it's a reflection of the free market, I think it's more the lowest hanging fruit. I think it's easy to do something like this because we do like to laugh at ourselves, and I think that this is BET's chance, you know, attempt to sort of do something that's easy. But I don't think that it's going to work in the long run because - unless they change the focus to show some kind of lesson learned, it's going to just be a negative image that people aren't going to find very funny after a while.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm sure that this is going to continue percolating in the blogosphere. And I want to thank all of you for joining us.

Mr. RABB: Thank you.

Ms. WINTERS: Thank you.

Mr. TOOLEY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking with freelance writer and novelist Angela Winters. Her political blog is Politopics. Public educator Avery Tooley, his blog is Stereo Describes My Scenario. Both were at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Christopher Rabb is a consultant and social commentator. His blog is Afro-Netizen. He joined us from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia.

And you can find links to their blogs and ours at nprnewsandnotes.org.

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