Mainstream media spends a lot of time trying to be more relevant in our world of unlimited online channels. So in this context I can excuse people for being skeptical that the CNN – YouTube debate was anything more than a gimmick. If you are unfamiliar with this, the idea was that instead of the moderator asking questions, YouTube users would submit videos that ask the questions.
The debate aired on CNN tonight and I just finished watching in online in my living room on CNN.com with my wife Jessica. (Why the video of the debate wasn’t also on YouTube, I don’t know. CNN has a very annoying player that required me to download a new plug-in.) Some criticism before the debate, particularly from Jeff Jarvis, was that CNN shouldn’t be deciding which videos to show. In this way, he and others argued, CNN was simply replacing questions they would ask with the same questions being asked by YouTubers. What these critics wanted was that the most popular question videos on YouTube be the ones they show at the debate. CNN argued that if they did that then the candidates might try to manipulate the popularity of the questions online. I would add that we would probably have had 30 questions about health care.
In the end, I think CNN made the right choice and I think this was a much better debate than usual. Jeff Jarvis thinks it sucked. He says that an online debate, with the candidates responding directly to the videos would have been better. Probably. And you have to agree with his point about the “horse race blather” from the commentators after the debate ended. This might be baby steps, but it is certainly steps.
Michael Bassik, an authority about all of this from MSHC Parnters, was quoted in the New York Times as saying it was less about which questions are picked and more about simply giving people a voice that don’t have in the traditional debate format. After seeing it, I agree.
Jessica said it’s all about stories. The videos became real reality check stories. At one point, John Edwards told us about a man he met on his recent poverty tour with a medical problem — a cleft pallet that he didn’t get fixed until he was 50 years old. This story, stuck in the can by Edwards before the debate and pulled out to show he is in touch with real people, seemed totally hollow to those of us watching from the couch. It didn’t have any impact because minutes before he told his story we saw videos of adult kids feeding their mother with Alzheimer’s and a woman taking her wig off and talking about being denied preventative care because she didn’t have health insurance.
Yes, there were too many candidates. And Dennis Kucinich has to be the most annoying candidate that ever ran. And there is never enough time. But millions of Americans saw this video. And I think that really is a difference.
I completely agree. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. But it made people think about an election based on the issues from the standpoint of real people. And it took the focus off the war of words and put it on the best solution to real problems.
And don’t kid yourself, if the online voting had been used to choose questions, it would have been a PAC-driven free-for-all. We would have seen a ton of staged questions by those on the fringes and questions chosen by followers of people like Ron Paul.
CNN did a great job with this, and just a reminder, no one else has yet released debate footage free to the public like them. If you want to post a video from a future non-CNN debate you will be doing it illegally.