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June 14, 2007

The revolution will not be televised, at least not on CNN

Posted by David Postman at 12:05 PM

If you watched CNN's presidential debates you know that the cable news channel is co-sponsoring a debate with YouTube, the popular Internet video site. CNN promoted it as a political sea change. As Wolf Blitzer said at the close of the Republican debate:

"It promises to be a revolutionary approach to campaign debates, in partnership with YouTube and Google. You're going to want to see this."

I do want to see it. And I hope it's more interesting and telling than the usual presidential debate. But I'm skeptical. I find this, from the NY Times, hard to believe:

"It's one of the biggest innovations we've seen in politics," said Mike Gehrke, director of research for the Democratic National Committee, which has sanctioned the YouTube/CNN event as the first of six official Democratic debates this year (which means the party has coordinated them).

If the debate is one of the biggest political innovations in history that says a lot about the stale nature of political debate in the country.

Here's how it will work: People can submit video questions to YouTube with a chance they will be selected to be shown during the July 23 debate. CNN's Anderson Cooper -- in a "Hey, YouTube" message on the video site -- urges people to be creative, "but keep it clean."

Cooper says he won't be doing much as the moderator of the debate because all questions will come from the citizen video.

The NY Times describes YouTube as "the anything-goes home-video-sharing Web site that puts the power in the hands of the camera holder." But in this debate only a little of the power really will be in the hands of the camera holder. The real power will be in who selects the questions, and of course in who answers them. And that's where it's tough to think of this as any sort of revolution.

For years audience members have asked questions at political debate. TV stations have even sent video crews out to tape people asking their questions. The YouTube questions will be more creative and a little more, as the Times said, "anything goes." But will there be revolutionary questions? Will there be things asked that can knock the candidates from their well-practiced balance of showing just enough emotion to not look like they are pre-programmed?

I don't see how a debate produced by CNN with questions vetted and selected by someone or some ones who have to produce a TV show, can be expected to be revolutionary. Josh Feit writes in passing that the debate is an example of "how DIY digital 2007 is flipping off traditional media and transforming the upcoming Presidential campaign."

Hardly. This do-it-yourself journalism will be filtered by one of the largest media conglomerates in the world -- a bulwark of traditional media. You can get a flavor of what the debate might look like from this YouTube promotional video.

It's certainly more interesting and entertaining than watching Wolf Blitzer ask for a show of hands to see where the candidates stand on the question of genocide in Darfur. But listen to the questions and you'll find they end up a lot like what candidates usually get asked at such events:

"What will you do to end the spread of check centers and stop predatory lending in low income neighborhoods?"

"What will you do to make sure that the returning veterans of today get better help than the Vietnam veterans did?"

"I would like to know how you're going to make sure that all Americans have health care available to them?"

They certainly come with a different character than what we're used to seeing in presidential debates. But at the Republican debate this month, candidates got this question from audience member Doug Hall:

"I know a business owner in northern New Hampshire who was on vacation in Spain last year for about three weeks. While he was there he had to buy refills for prescription drugs -- brand-name drugs. And he discovered in buying those drugs that he could buy his refills there for $600 less than he could by them here in New Hampshire. So since then, he's said he is going to take a trip over to Spain and get his vacation paid for to buy his drugs.

"My question to you is, why is this? And if you are elected president, is there anything you would do to address it?"

At the Democratic debate, this question came from Carol Kilminster, whose son James is serving in Iraq.

"My question is, why is it that veterans cannot receive medical services at the hospital of their choice?"

Both were important questions, delivered by real people with a real stake in the answer. But at both the Democratic and Republican debates, candidates had to be pushed and prodded to answer questions posed by audience members. Politicians are great at saying what they think serves them best in an answer, even if that means ignoring a question or going on at length to pre-explain a pending answer.

I look forward to what interesting questions the YouTube nation brings to the debate. But good questions have not been in short supply. The answers have been the problem.

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