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Last night’s CNN/YouTube debate was a triumph of public participation in the political process. Although it served as a long promotional stunt for CNN (I saw breathless hyping of it on CNN 48 hours out), the format worked.
The first questioner of the night asked the candidates, “How are you going to be any different?” The same question is apropos for the debate.
Ordinary men, women and snowmen were given the chance to ask their questions of the Democratic candidates for president. While this has been attempted before in a town hall format, many town hall audiences are thoroughly screened by the parties. The video format added the ability to use backgrounds and props to illustrate the question. A question about Darfur came from a refugee camp in Darfur. A question about gun control features a seemingly crazy man grabbing his “baby.”
Having the public ask questions produced questions that you wouldn’t get from professional journalists, who worry about decorum or being perceived as biased. Is Obama black enough and Hillary feminine enough? (Host Andersen Cooper presented this first to Obama, protesting “not my question.”) Would you be willing to work for the minimum wage if you’re elected as president? Do you send your kids to public school or private school? Will a woman president be taken seriously in the Muslim world?
The videos also served to humanize the questions. Many questions in traditional debates are asked in the abstract. It’s an altogether different feeling when you have to tell a lesbian couple why you think they shouldn’t be allowed to get married or a guy in a wheelchair what you will do to give him access to health care.
It’s tempting to say, let’s throw the journalists out of the process. Tempting, but wrong. The two dozen or so questions were selected by CNN from among almost 3,000 videos submitted on YouTube. The debate began with an explanation of how CNN selected the questions. No people in costumes. No using children to ask grown up questions. No stuffing the ballot box, as Joe Biden’s campaign tried to do with a question on the war. The most viewed question on YouTube — about whether Arnold Schwarchenegger is a cyborg — wasn’t put to the candidates.
As interesting as the questions were, most of the responses weren’t. Candidates, as in ordinary debates, often deflected the question and went straight to their talking points. I thought John Edwards did the best job of directly answering questions.
My biggest complaint about the format was the way the YouTube questions were shown. Instead of being shown full screen, they were shown as projected on a screen in the auditorium. When Mike Sharley was using flashcards to ask his question from a wheelchair, the camera cut away to a shot of Andersen Cooper staring at the screen. Even now, I can’t easily find all of the original questions that were selected. Here is my best guess at the Sharley video.
Here is my pick for the most entertaining question of the night: