Cleveland’s Teenage Edward R. Murrow
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even Edward R. Murrow had to start somewhere.
It’s June 2014, and Nancy Pelosi is smiling, but only in the literal sense of the word. “Why do you support the NSA’s illegal and ubiquitous data collection?” the House minority leader is asked, and her fixed grin plummets. Her tongue-tied response — which blamed George W. Bush for spying programs still used today and, in general, wasn’t exactly flattering — soon ran viral through conservative channels, including Fox News and the Blaze. The intrepid interviewer who tripped Pelosi up? That would be Andrew Demeter, a teenager still too young to vote.
Wavy-haired, wiry and wearing nerdy-chic glasses, the 17-year-old from Cleveland is hard to recognize today from his moment of Internet fame a year ago. Since then, Demeter has built a following for his political YouTube channel, Teen Take, that numbers in the tens of thousands. The self-professed libertarian has set his sights on everyone across the political spectrum, from Pelosi and Harry Reid to Marco Rubio and Ben Carson. On camera, he has a relaxed grace, pointed ideology and sharp wit that is reminiscent of a modern-day Edward R. Murrow; away from the lens, he’s self-effacing, prone to tangents and endearingly insecure.
For Murrow, the medium was television; for Demeter, it’s viral videos.
“My biggest flaw/struggle is perfectionism,” Demeter offers, and it’s easy to believe him — after all, he’s trading school dances and gridiron nights for hours of cutting video in his bedroom studio, a messy, monitor-and-mic Frankenstein befitting a garage band, except this kid’s a rock star of a far less sexy scene: political activism. That makes him another spokesperson, like this year’s satirical political candidate “Deez Nuts” and a young Black Republican in Georgia, for a generation with little faith in government or the media. “It’s not your parent’s activism,” says researcher Whitney Dailey, who focuses on social and environmental issues for Cone Communications. “For millennials, it’s about breaking through and having a conversation with decision-makers like they’ve never been able to before.”
Demeter has earned kudos from a diverse crowd. Infowars conspiracist Alex Jones applauded him for asking “real questions” that “mainstream media” wouldn’t. Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto was so impressed with Demeter that he wryly offered to introduce the teen to his daughter. Adds Gary Franchi, an anchor for the digitally based Next News Network: “He’s not afraid.” That’s for sure: In one interview, Westboro Baptist Church’s Shirley Phelps told Demeter that he was going to hell for supporting gay marriage. “Well, Shirley, if you’re going to heaven, I’m more than happy to go hell,” he calmly responded.
Which is all part of the shtick. Demeter isn’t afraid to speak the truth, bias be damned. “Objectivity is a myth,” he says, and to think otherwise is “laughable.… I consider myself a commentator.” Just as Murrow took on McCarthyism by shunting aside mistakenly balanced reporting, Demeter wants to hold those in power accountable, not massage their egos. For Murrow, the medium was television; for Demeter, it’s viral videos.
His political education is also thanks to our digital obsession. Toting his dad’s Canon Optura 20, he used to interrogate family members with that oh-so-devastating question “What is your favorite animal?” He’s a peace-preaching activist who spent middle school logging more than 400 hours on Call of Duty shoot-’em-ups, then posting the videos online — his first YouTube foray. In a world where toddlers own tablets, one doesn’t have to read Ayn Rand to become a libertarian. Instead, Demeter ascribes his questioning ways to one of his favorite movies, National Treasure, and to viral video conspiracists like Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura (they don’t give him the same kick now, though, he says).
Demeter’s first political video was a rail against the gun control agenda he believed was behind the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012. “Once you become aware of one political issue, it leads you down the rabbit hole,” he reflects today, and boy, did this Alice fall far. He stopped eating meat — his current reading list includes The Real Food Revolution, by Rep. Tim Ryan, and The Unhealthy Truth, by Robyn O’Brien — and became a one-man studio. In 2014, his documentary “We the People, Genetically Modified?” was named a finalist in C-Span’s student film contest, which sent him to Washington, which led to his confrontation with Pelosi.
There are drawbacks to Demeter’s calling. For one, stock footage and new equipment are expensive, and his ad revenue is peanuts compared with the costs. Plus, being an Internet darling, especially in the heated world of online politics, takes a toll on a personal life that includes filming corny skits, singing in McDonald’s drive-thrus and sharing awkward double dates at the movies with his best friend. Not to mention the fact that posting his political views while still a teenager comes with its own risks. “In young adulthood, there’s a lot of identity formation and people finding their political selves,” says Kent Jennings, a political scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara. In other words, if Demeter’s views change over time — as many young people’s do — good luck. Stuff on the Internet from your youth years can bite you in the arse later when you want to be POTUS. Which is why Demeter is zealous in protecting his privacy. Despite taking politicians to task, he balks when answering questions about his birthday, parents, high school or specific plans on college and beyond.
“I don’t understand the relevance,” Demeter says. His current dream? A senior, he hopes to become the lead anchor for his school’s morning announcements. Here’s thinking that reading the lunch menu aloud won’t pose much of a challenge.