Rep. George Miller’s 90-second speech mocking the GOP health care plan got me thinking about how political information gets disseminated. The 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated that YouTube creates some interesting incentives for politicians. Before YouTube, if you wanted your point to reach the largest possible audience, it was crucial that you fit in some real “zingers” that could be turned into quotes in newspapers or sound bites on the evening news. Your argument and the structure of your speech (or the structure of your questioning of a witness at a hearing) didn’t matter as much.
In the YouTube era, people’s attention spans for political speech are actually slightly longer. It’s not just that people will watch Barack Obama, by all accounts a great orator, give a 40-minute speech on race. It also seems that people will watch five minutes of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who is no Barack Obama, blasting the Federal Reserve. They may even be willing to watch 90 seconds of George Miller, a powerful but fairly obscure legislator, criticizing Republicans. And the realization that people are okay with watching those sorts of things has affected television. When I interviewed him last month for a profile in the next issue of Mother Jones, Grayson said that he specifically aims for short, YouTube-friendly speeches—and those speeches are short enough and fiery enough that they sometimes end up being played, unedited, on national television. Here’s what he said when I asked him how he deals with what he sees as the media’s fixation on manners:
Since we are speaking directly to the audience these days, it doesn’t really matter. I consistently give speeches no longer than two minutes. Very few of my colleagues in congress do that. The result of that is that every once in a while we get lucky and the entire speech is played without editing on national TV, so I’m able to communicate directly to a national audience without the mediation of the media.
Miller’s speech follows that mold. This is a good thing. The more people get to see what Congress is actually like, the better.