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July 23, 2007

Tonight's Democratic debate

Posted by David Postman at 8:50 AM

I remain a skeptic that tonight's CNN/YouTube debate of Democratic presidential candidates signals any kind of revolution in political dialogue. Hearing Cokie Roberts, arbiter of all things conventional, on NPR this morning say how new and exciting it'll be didn't help either.

But I have to keep at least a little bit of an open mind because after the debate I will host a call-in show about the big event. It'll air on TVW at 6 p.m. — right after the debate ends — and be webcast right here at You can call toll-free during the program at 866-511-1103 or 866-511-1107. You will also be able to submit written questions from the Times homepage beginning at 4 p.m.

Times columnist Danny Westneat will be in the co-host chair. We have two guests lined up: Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic political consultant, part-time aide to Ron Sims and former Stranger writer and Mike Davidson, CEO of Newsvine. (Newsvine is a news site that allows readers to pick their favorite stories and discuss the news.) Mike will help us decide how revolutionary the debate really was. I see from his blog he's an Al Gore guy, so I'll have to ask him how long he plans to wait before finding another candidate.

The rest of the hour will be taken up with insightful commentary and probing questions from you. And I see that at least the local Obama crowd is ready for a little post-game action.

Part of what originally had me questioning the importance of tonight's debate is that the real power comes from selecting the questions. And that power remains in the hands of big media, not the masses. Last week the Washington Post talked with CNN's Anderson Cooper about the debate. He said:

These are smart questions, and people are clearly living these topics. It's not just theoretical question, or an academic discussion. These are people that are very passionate about this topic. I want to make sure that this debate honors them, and honors the time they took to make these questions.

What makes YouTube so popular scares CNN a little.

"It's dangerous," says executive producer David Bohrman. "With the anonymity of the Internet, you can cross the line. There's a small, good gatekeeper function we still need to play."

Some 'Tubers are unhappy that they don't get to decide what gets asked tonight.

"Our expectation was that they were really going to use the Web and let the wisdom of the crowd help drive politics in a more democratic way," said David Colarusso, a Massachusetts physics teacher.

So, while on sabbatical in Edinburgh, Scotland, he tweaked his political site to allow anyone, YouTube user or not, to vote on what questions they want to see asked Monday. It can be reached at

At Colarusso's site he tells people:

Remember you are voting for the questions you want answered, not the viewpoints you agree with.

When I last checked, the top question was about impeaching President Bush.

There has also been criticism that the YouTube submissions are too male.

Women's Vote noted that "of the first 200 [video] submissions, only 34 were from women!" Yuck. I'd love to ask Anderson why he thinks men are rushing to the camcorder...and I must admit, the whole YouTube Debate site does have a very boy feel to it.

My guess is the questions that get asked will have a much more balanced appearance.

I also will keep an open mind about the debate because Jeff Jarvis is a believer. There's no one online — who I've never met or talked to — who has influenced my thinking about media as much as Jarvis. He started to follow what he terms the YouTube Campaign. And he says tonight's program matters.

My fondest hope is that viewers — and candidates and journalists — leave the debate impressed with at least a few of the questions. I hope they see that handing over control to us — or I should say, back to us — makes for a better discussion and, in the end, a better democracy. I hope they see that we do care, we are smart. I hope they learn to involve us in their process more often. I hope we all feel better about the election and the country as a result. That is putting a lot of pressure on two hours of TV, YouTube videos, and politicians. But the YouTube debates are a crack in the wall of control of elections, politics, and media. Bring your chisels.

You can see what's been submitted here.

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