For Debates, Is YouTube a Better Way?
Last night's Democratic primary debate may have been the first to take questions through YouTube, but the idea of having citizens directly question the candidates isn't new. In fact, it is riddled with potholes. Consider the beginning of the concept, a town hall style meeting that served as the second general election debate in 1992. It remains a warning for the overconfident and a reminder of YouTube's limitation.
About halfway through the 1992 debate, a woman stood up and asked: "How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" George H.W. Bush struggled mightily to respond. Bill Clinton leapt at the query. Walking to the edge of the dais, he addressed the questioner directly and personally, using the space to emphasize his interaction with the woman and his understanding of the question.
It was a start, but citizen questions have come a long way in 15 years. CNN's much-publicized announcement to partner with YouTube and solicit questions from users of the popular video-sharing site garnered over 2,000 submissions—not counting the ones that got immediately axed for vulgarity. The decision comes in the face of a growing protest among bloggers and other online activists that the debates have become too sterile and choreographed, thanks to delicate agreements hashed out ahead of time by the campaigns. In response, groups like Open Debates are fueling a campaign to bring more spontaneity to the exchanges.
"There is nothing more unattractive to voters than seeing a candidate scared of communicating with the American people," says Open Debates Executive Director George Farah.
Fair enough. But questions from YouTube lack the physical presence of a voter that Clinton was able to exploit in 1992, causing many to ask whether it's much of a solution to the demand for a more personal touch to debates. The fact that CNN still chose the questions from the pool of submissions left many in the blogosphere complaining that the central tenet of the new media—that users control the flow of information—had been stripped away, leaving a system in which citizens simply parrot the same questions that the moderator would otherwise ask.
But David Birdsell, the dean of the school of public affairs at Baruch College, notes that the YouTube presentation still has its benefits.
"Voters can identify with other voters asking the questions in language that often more closely resembles their own," he says. "And it is easier for candidates to ignore a reporter's question."
A format for the general election debates, which have been moderated by the non-profit Commission for Presidential Debates since 1988, will not be hashed out in detail until each party has its candidate.