By Mariel Jungkunz
America, are you ready to meet your new political pundits?
They may not be O'Reilly or Olbermann yet, but they're well-informed. They're articulate. They're all over the political spectrum (with even supporters of Rep. Ron Paul represented, thank you very much), and they're ready to tell you what they think.
They're the Ohio University student focus groups that stole the show on "FOX & Friends" this morning during a live taping that brought anchor Alisyn Camerota and pollster Frank Luntz to Baker University Center. The day's topics included the war in Iraq, economic issues facing the country and, of course, Tuesday's primaries.
The show airs live from 6 to 9 a.m. to an audience of more than one million, and on Tuesday, after the first of the two broadcasts from Ohio University, the FOX network received plenty of positive mail in response to the Forensics Team's on-camera debates.
"We had so many wonderful e-mails from across the country," said FOX network consultant Woody Fraser as he prepped and thanked the students in attendance at today's show. "And you guys did it."
This morning, it was the focus groups' chance to shine. For each of the four groups he convened on the Baker Center Theatre stage, Luntz organized 18 students (selected from the mostly student audience in attendance) to represent a variety of political viewpoints. Then, in the quick-fire interviews he and Camerota conducted, questions flew out fast and furious, and the students had to think quickly -- but respond eloquently.
"They were very articulate and had amazing things to say," said Luntz, an influential strategist who has advised President George W. Bush as well as key House and Senate Republicans. "Every time I get a chance to do this, I'm surprised by how good the students are. These kids care about their country, and they demonstrate that by what they say and how they communicate it."
Also present for the live broadcast was former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who answered questions from the students on camera and interacted with them between takes, extending his scheduled visit to continue his conversations with the audience.
On the stage and in the spotlight, focus group members explained their reasons for voting this year (many for the first time) and why they support particular candidates. They gave their impressions of clips from the show's earlier interviews with Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And they were candid about their views, even on controversial issues.
During one focus group session, only one student raised her hand when asked if the media can be trusted. Several complained about the bickering between political parties. Many said the character of a candidate matters most, and they're extremely cynical about established politicians. Others admitted they could not see themselves serving in Iraq, even if drafted. "It's my choice," one student said. This discussion was particularly spirited, as students traded zingers back and forth.
"They allowed students to be passionate about how they felt," said junior and family studies major Charae Williams, who participated in one of the focus groups. "They were very open to the students voicing their opinions."
Junior and African-American Studies major Bryson Rose, also a focus group participant, hopes the conversation continues beyond the show and energizes the campus.
"This was a chance for me to share my views with other students," Rose said. "There were different opinions and different arguments. But more so, what you saw was how we synthesize and come together."
It was a rare chance for students to see how news shows operate, and they brought a critical eye to how the broadcast media frames political discourse.
"I think some of the questioning has been black and white," said senior and online journalism major Meghan Louttit, speaking from her seat in the audience. "When they're sitting there talking to us, (they ask) 'Is it the economy or Iraq?' It's not that simple to try to answer that. They try to boil down things to very simplified terms."
She laughed at the thought of having to answer a question as a member of the focus group. "My answers would be way too long!"
Interestingly enough, she overcame her hesitation and volunteered for the last gathering on stage. When the mic came to her, she spoke eloquently -- and briefly! -- about the change she'd like to see in both political parties.
Louttit's informative response offered a glimpse at the young electorate on the day after an important primary. And America saw a generation that's not afraid to speak up and engage, Luntz said.
"It gives our audience hope that the next generation has their act together, and we can trust them to use their vote wisely," he said. "It gives me tremendous optimism about the future."