We The ('Net) People: Who Owns The Presidential Debates?

Is MSNBC "stealing" the first major political event of the 2008 presidential race, Thursday night's Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama-John Edwards debate in South Carolina?
Is MSNBC "stealing" the first major political event of the 2008 presidential race, Thursday night's Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama-John Edwards debate in South Carolina?That's essentially what A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis is charging, in a blog post which notes that MSNBC is placing heavy restrictions on Internet use of its video feed from the debate.

Jarvis says he got a hold of the "list of rules" NBC corporate has handed out to organizations looking to use that feed. Restrictions include no video before the debate is over, no excerpts longer than two minutes, no archived posts (i.e, nothing online after May 26th.) Plus, a big honkin' MSNBC credit has to be on screen for the entire length of any excerpt.

"What makes NBC think it has the right to own the democratic discussion in this country?," asks Jarvis. His thesis (as indicated in a question he says he posed to MSNBC's Joe Alicastro, the producer in charge of the debate): "I asked whether he thought the Amercian people had a right to this debate since it is our election."

That's consistent with the position Jarvis always takes, which is a kind of "We are the Web" view of interaction. Everything should be out there; the debate is the network; if you're not part of the conversation, you're part of the old-fart print journalism approach. Stuff like that.

Lest you think that I'm anti-Jarvis, let me disabuse you of that notion. There's an important point at the center of Jarvis's sometimes off-putting "I'm the only one who understands the Web" persona. He's correct in his stance that the Internet is indeed the center of conversation, and anyone who doesn't go with that flow is essentially subverting their own long-term interests.

Where I disagree with Jarvis--or, more correctly, where he gets under my skin--is the sense he seems to convey that he's the only one who "gets" it and that everyone who has heretofore been paid to create content should now do so for free. Meanwhile, he's gonna get paid as a consultant. (Here's an idea: How about you consult for free and I get paid for the Web content I create?)

Invective aside, here's where the MSNBC debate question gets sticky: Yes, MSNBC would probably be smart to let more people, rather than fewer, see clips. Hundreds of thousands more viewers could see the debates via Internet clips (where they would also get a glimpse of MSNBC's "brand) than will view it live. In terms of raw numbers, not all that many people actually watch political debates. So in that regard, MSNBC is being dumb. Plus, you never want to piss off A-list bloggers like Jarvis. (For you literalists, that's meant ironically.)

On the other hand, one must remember that MSNBC is a business first and foremost. They have to pay to broad- and cablecast the debates, to set up the video feeds, to produce the event, etc. Why should a business be forced to open up stuff it pays for, just because the Web "wants" to be, in fact is, open?

There's what's likely to remain the rub for some time, between old-line media and businesses, which have to make money the old fashioned way, and many of the newer Web operations, which don't, can't, or (more commonly) are awaiting the day when we all figure out where the dollars that'll support us long term are going to come from.

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Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
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John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing