Holy Shit, I Interviewed the President
Bethany Mota, Glozell Green, and I got an opportunity that a lot of people don’t think we deserved.
For the past six years, Google has been hosting post-State of the Union interviews with the President on YouTube. Some of these used pre-recorded questions, others incorporated Google Hangouts. My brother John even asked a couple of questions during the Hangout they did in 2013.
This year, Google and the White House worked together to actually have the interviews happen in the same physical space as Obama. I’m sure it was not easy to get buy-in from all of the necessary parties, but they did it.
The media did not complain about (or even really discuss) the last five years of post-SOTU interviews but, as we’ll see, this year was a bit different. This post is mostly about why that is.
Of the people they asked to participate this year, I was the safest bet. I’m a 34-year-old white male with a graduate degree. My videos sometimes involve farting and humping things, but my most common topics are science and thoughtfulness.
Bethany Mota is a 19-year-old who is easy to write off as just another cute, fashionable girl. Though, as is often the case with people who get written off that way, there’s a lot of complexity there. She’s smart, caring, funny, and charming. She already has her own fashion line at Aeropostale.
Glozell Green is a 52-year-old comedian who has made a name for herself on YouTube with some outrageous challenge videos. Also, she is whip-smart, savvy, and has a laser-like focus on her goals.
We’re all pretty different people with different audience demographics and styles of video-making. In fact, I want to shout out to Google for making sure a diverse group of people headed to the White House for this opportunity. They would have caught a lot less flak from the press if they’d used creators who fit into the established idea of what an “engaged American” looks like. Diversity was clearly a goal, but there is one thing we all have in common:
We are ourselves.
We talk about serious topics in our videos through the lens of our own experiences. I talk about living with a chronic disease. Bethany talks about being bullied. Glozell talks about being racially marginalized (which, let me tell you, has not ended.) We talk about our lives and share our thoughts honestly. Our audiences do not watch us just to be entertained or to get information. They watch us because they like us.
This is, of course, why the White House opened its doors to us. They want to connect with that diverse audience and they want that connection to be sympathetic. Since they’re getting an undeniable benefit out of engaging with us, we were asked to not go easy on the President. After I sent Google my first list of questions, they got back to me pushing me to drop the soft balls.
Thanks for sending your questions — they’re great. In particular I really liked your questions on regulation, North Korea, and drugs/incarceration.
I agonized over those questions for weeks. Glozell and Bethany, I know, did as well. I watched them (as they watched me) in the final process of revision in DC. Remarkably, we all managed to get to the finish line without taking on all of the tropes of the reporter. We (I think) managed to ask real questions and still be ourselves.
The press has had a mixed response to this. MSNBC was unsurprisingly complimentary of the President and Fox thinks he’s degraded the office of the presidency, so let’s discard the outliers.
The middle road had a lot of negativity. CNN intro’d and outro’d every segment with Glozell in a bathtub full of cereal, as did ABC’s morning show. Some positive articles hid their praise inside of how surprised they were that they didn’t have anything nasty to say. Even new media companies like Vice were dismissive:
Think of it as a teeny-bopper AMA…The interviewers will be GloZell Green, who’s perhaps best known for sitting in a tub full of cereal; a 19-year-old who gives beauty advice named Bethany Mota; and Hank Green, a notorious YouTube ranter whose brother wrote The Fault in Our Stars.
I may be biased here, but I feel like there’s an actual and honorable goal in all of this. America needs to convince young people that there are good reasons to be civically involved. Millenials are soon to be the biggest hunk of the electorate and, if the mid-terms are any indication, they simply don’t care. And that shouldn’t be surprising since no one is connecting to them in the ways they connect with each other or talking about issues that matter to them from perspectives they can identify with.
Legacy media accuses young people of being apathetic while actively attempting to remove them from the discussion.
There’s a problem that needs to be solved and this is clearly an attempt to solve it. That’s part of what convinced me it was a good idea for me to be involved. The other part, to be clear, was that I got to interview the freaking President.
It never occurred to me that the news media would react negatively to this. But the mockery began as soon as the interviews were announced. Jim Acosta, CNN’s senior White House correspondent, asked the press secretary, “I’m just curious, was ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ or ‘David After Dentist’ not available?”
At first I thought his comment was born in blind ignorance of the cultural impact of YouTube, but I’ve realized it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Walking around the White House, seeing the Press Briefing Room and all of the two-hundred-year-old chairs and decoy helicopters reminded me that the history of post-democratic power is really the history of legitimacy.
Fox News functions so successfully as an arm of the Republican Party because the news used to be an unassailable fortress of legitimacy. Walter Cronkite wasn’t representing a political ideology, or even discussing politics when my father watched the news as a teenager. He was discussing the news. Cable news today uses the residual legitimacy of that bygone era (that they are simultaneously destroying) to degrade the legitimacy of their political opponents.
There is nothing actually legitimate about Fox News (or MSNBC for that matter) and young people know this. They don’t trust news organizations because news organizations have given them no reason to be trusting. These channels exist not to inform but to uphold the biases and values of particular ideologies. Ideologies and values, by the way, that very few young people embody. Even when they try to strike a balance, they do it by pitting different perspectives against each other in staged arguments. But neither perspective looks familiar to most people under the age of 40, so they just tune out.
This complete lack of objectivity and representation in cable news has degraded the legitimacy of news media as a whole. Young people have absolutely no faith in people sitting at desks on television anymore. It’s gotten so bad that the most trusted news show among people under 40 is on Comedy Central. The Daily Show, it should be noted, spends as much time mocking the news media as it does talking about the news, further decreasing young people’s trust of the news. The news is losing an entire generation.
Legacy media isn’t mocking us because we aren’t a legitimate source of information; they’re mocking us because they’re terrified. Their legitimacy came from the fact that they have access to distribution channels and that they get to be in the White House press pool because of some long-ago established procedures that assumed they would use that power in the public interest. In reality, those things are becoming less and less important and less and less true. Distribution is free to anyone with a cell phone and the legitimacy of cable news sounds to me like an oxymoron. The median-aged CNN viewer is 60. For Fox, it’s 68.
The Fox/MSNBC machine is degrading a generation’s opinion of all news media. Young people watch Jon Stewart make fun of Fox News and they think “That’s what ‘news’ is” so they disengage. This isn’t just bad for journalism, it’s bad for America. I might venture to say that it’s terrible and dangerous and frightening for America. How does a democracy function with no credible system for informing its citizens?
Are we supposed to be surprised then that the White House wants to communicate their perspectives and policies to the people that they lead? If the news media no longer wants to do that (and is also incapable of doing that) then yeah, they’re going to find other channels. They’ll do it themselves, as they did before the State of the Union with a series of videos explaining new policies that they’d be announcing.
And they’ll do it through the new legitimacy.
Apparently, that’s me. *GULP*
This is the real source of legacy media’s belittling and diminishing language around our interviews with Obama. They have degraded their own legitimacy so much that, to a lot of people, I (a 34-year-old former bio-chemist and current video blogger) appear to be a more legitimate source of unbiased thought and information than the fucking news?
I think sub-consciously they understand the really terrifying thing here. Glozell and Bethany and I weren’t put in a chair next to President Obama because we have cultivated an audience. We were put there because we have cultivated legitimacy.
The source of our legitimacy is the very different from their coiffed, Armani institutions. It springs instead (and I’m aware that I’m abandoning any modicum of modesty here) from honesty. In new media this is often called “authenticity” because our culture is too jaded to use a big fat word like “honesty” without our gallbladders clogging up, but that’s really what it is.
Glozell, Bethany and I don’t sit in fancy news studios surrounded by fifty thousand dollar cameras and polished metal and glass backdrops with inlayed 90-inch LCD screens. People trust us because we’ve spent years developing a relationship with them. We have been scrutinized and found not evil. Our legitimacy comes from honesty, not from cultural signals or institutions.
And with young people having no reasons to trust those cultural signals that we older folks were raised with, this is the only thing that works for them anymore. Our values and interests mesh with theirs enough that they’ve come to trust us. They trust us to make content that they will enjoy and they trust us to be the kind of people they can look up to. People who betray that trust risk losing everything that they have built.
To the people who have criticized me for getting Obama to sign something for me, or Glozell for saying the word “dick,” or Bethany for saying that she isn’t very involved in politics, there’s something you need to understand: Our legitimacy springs exclusively from honesty. I have to be who I am. I have to act the way I feel like acting, or I am lying to my audience.
Yes, I was absolutely committed to asking real, hard questions. Questions that break out of the news cycle and come wrapped in context beyond ‘gotcha’ moments and political spin. I asked questions that my audience wanted answers to and questions that I wanted answered, not questions that would best serve one or the other political party. But, I wasn’t going to walk away from a man who has gotten nothing but grief for a health care bill that has made my life immensely easier without saying, “Thanks.”
The relationship between press and the politician was once good for everyone. It was good for the press, for the politician, for the Americans, and for the country. We’ve lost that. Certain press organizations have degraded their own legitimacy by forgetting that their responsibility is to more than the shareholder. That degradation has, for young people, spread throughout the entire news media either in fact or in perception. In the process the legitimacy not just of individual politicians but the entire political process has been whittled down.
The shift in media consumption from television and newspaper to Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter has left a generation without a source of information that they can trust. In my experience, people under the age of 30 tend to simply assume that all media are biased. They find ways to engage, but those conversations are isolated from the broader culture and certainly from politics. If their values are not incorporated into the future of this country, it will be a worse future.
If Google and the White House want to use me as a pawn to counteract this bullshit, sign me up. Especially if politicians are OK with a bit more of their legitimacy springing from honesty as well.
Hank and his brother John have started several YouTube channels since 2007 including Vlogbrothers, SciShow, Crash Course, and Mental Floss. Their videos have been viewed more than a billion times. Hank is also the CEO and founder of VidCon, the world’s largest conference discussing and celebrating online video, which attracted more than 18,000 attendees in 2014.