July 24, 2007

YouTube Lost This Debate

When YouTube and CNN announced that they would stage a debate in which the questions came from the American people, where the questioners would momentarily star on national television, it created a lot of excitement. It rated as a watershed moment in citizen journalism, where ordinary people closed the gap between the electorate and the elite. Journalists who embedded their agendas into debate questioning would get bypassed, and the American people would get real answers to the tough issues of the day.

I missed the show, but if the transcript is any guide, YouTube and its citizen journalists missed the boat. The questions ranged from the inane to ... well, the inane. Here are the first five questions posed by the YouTubers selected by CNN (via Memeorandum):

1. Issues don't matter. How are you different?

2. Dennis Kucinich, how are you better than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

3. Hillary, how do you define the word "liberal"?

4. If you had to pick a Republican for VP, who would it be?

5. What's with the white hair?

Okay, the fifth came from Chris Dodd, in his own YouTube campaign commercial, but it wasn't much worse than the rest of the questions. The real fifth question asked whether the botched response to Hurricane Katrina came because of the racial composition of New Orleans (Dodd said yes). The very next question from YouTube, selected by CNN, questioned how Barack Obama could prove himself black enough for the election, and how Hillary could prove herself feminine enough. It wasn't until the seventh question that CNN actually hit on policy and issues, and that was in a video from two women wondering which candidate would allow them to marry each other.

Under these circumstances, it makes little difference what kind of candidates appeared at the debates. These inane questions drew no substantive answers, although they did allow the candidates to rely on their talking points more than usual for responses. One can hardly blame them for doing so, as they had literally nothing with which to work. The same can be said for Anderson Cooper, whom the transcript shows cutting off answers to get to the next question in the hope of something substantive.

Even when the questions got substantive, as they did in regards to Iraq and Darfur, though, the answers didn't move much from a regurgitation of talking points. Joe Biden may have given the best answer on Iraq, especially since it came right after a demand for American action in Darfur. None of the candidates caught the irony of the juxtaposition -- that we would abandon Iraq to genocide while diving into the Sudan to stop another, but Biden at least sounded realistic:

COOPER: Senator Biden, how do we pull out now? That was the question.

BIDEN: Anderson, you've been there. You know we can't just pull out now. Let's get something straight. It's time to start to tell the truth. The truth of the matter is: If we started today, it would take one year, one year to get 160,000 troops physically out of Iraq, logistically.

That's number one.

Number two, you cannot pull out of Iraq without the follow-on that's been projected here, unless you have a political solution. I'm the only one that's offered a political solution.

His political solution is, of course, to break Iraq into three autonomous cantons, a move that Turkey has warned would lead to war. Biden keeps forgetting to mention that, as well as the fact that most Iraqis do not want to see their country dismembered. At least Biden understands the logistics of withdrawal better than his colleagues.

Afterwards, it went back to inanities. One man questioned Mike Gravel on a statement he made at a prior debate about soldiers dying in vain in Viet Nam. Another asked Hillary Clinton whether Muslim governments would treat her like a second-class leader because of her status as a woman -- a question which Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan could have answered over a decade ago, and many other female world leaders before and since. Did anyone ask that of Margaret Thatcher, or ever suspect that she gave a damn about how Muslim nations viewed her as a leader?

If anything, one had to sense the glee that mainstream journalists must have felt while watching this debate. It proved that, while many journalists use their own agendas to craft debate questions, at least they tend to keep them focused on real issues and demand real answers from the candidate. The only question YouTube missed was "boxers or briefs".

Let's hope that CNN can pick better questions in the next YouTube debate in September, with the Republicans -- and that YouTubers give them better material.

UPDATE: John Hawkins has some excellent excerpts that show the candidates tripping over themselves. Be sure to read it.


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Comments (26)

Posted by SicSemperTyrannus | July 24, 2007 7:10 AM

I have a feeling that CNN probably screened out any tough substantive questions that would put their party's candidates on the spot.

Posted by TAF | July 24, 2007 7:11 AM

"...sense the glee that mainstream journalists...journalists use their own agendas...focused on real issues and demand real answers..."

I would say that this experience proves that if given the opportunity, the Old Media will do whatever it can to discredit the New Media. After all, who was picking the questions to be ask?

You didn't really think they would pick real 'hardball' questions to ask of their patrons?

And what's this nonsense about the MSM demanding real answers to their questions? Only if the politico is of a different political persuasion, perhaps.

Posted by stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 24, 2007 7:17 AM

Of course we trust the MSM? And pigs fly again.

Posted by onlineanalyst | July 24, 2007 7:21 AM

Not being one to watch television and especially to avoid CNN, I nevertheless followed the proceedings via live-blogging venues. Obviously, I didn't miss anything of substance in this reduction of seriousness to entertainment for the masses.

When the questions weren't totally inane, the responses by the candidates were vacuously generic. (CE's cited Biden observation was the only one attempting to articulate a hard truth.) Too much of the "debate's" content was dedicated to identity grievances and the expectation that government has the answers to meet all of our desires.

I sent the following email to Jim Geraghty at NRO's "Campaign Spot" about a point that continues to be missed about Hillary Clinton:

In the nonsensical YouTube debate, Hillary Clinton made a remark about instituting national service academies, a "solution" typical of her top-down governmental style that continues to slip under the radar of political observers. To my mind, these "academies" to serve the state sound like re-education camps.

First, the dictator in a pantsuit wants to seize the young from kindergarten age on to inculcate the "party" line; then her version of Hitler youth via national service "academies" (nice ring that, "academies", a word that sounds so educationally enlightened and "progressive") serves the State, trumping respect for the individual, inherent rights, and free choice.

In tandem with Hillary's re-education plan to make the State the arbiter of how Americans live their lives, Mr. Bill is slogging a book on public service. The gall of those two opportunists to self promote through phony altruism when both have never acted without a personal profit motive politically or monetarily assaults (and insults) intelligence.

Hillary Clinton is on record promoting her belief that citizens should serve the State, not that the state derives its power from the will of the governed. Her guiding principle has never been fully held to scrutiny and criticism, especially in that it flies in the face of our nation's founding philosophy and guiding documents.

Posted by rbj | July 24, 2007 7:30 AM

I much more productively spend my evening watching the Yankees - Royals game, flipping to Portland, OR. underground on the History Channel.

How in the H E Double Hockey Stick did:
"1. Issues don't matter. How are you different?"
a) actually get asked, and
b) actually posed to the candidates?

Can one really trust a news organization that would vette such a question in the process to choose the next president of the United States of America?

Posted by AnonymousDrivel | July 24, 2007 7:50 AM

Hmm. Compelling TV. I can see it now for round two:

You Tuber via A Cooper: To all of the candidates, if you could be a tree, which kind of tree would you be?"

And yes, everyone has it pegged already. The MSM gets to set up and filter these preliminary stages with shallow, inane questions such that the blogosphere and new media gets discredited. How about they let Hot Air, CQ, Newsbusters, or Powerline, among thousands of other conservative and liberal outlets, ask the questions? Why so heavily court a demographic that while technically more savvy is much less likely to vote or even be aware of the depth of the issues?

Yes, we can rightly speculate that to selectively cherrypick, if those were indeed proverbial "plums," is an attempt to build the MSM into relative savants. We know they aren't, but compared to even a shill and superficial talent as Chris Matthews, the traditional talking heads win hands down for their intellectual analysis.

Scary thought that these are the questions upon which we'll be selecting a President. Worse still that a mind such as Newt Gingrich's doesn't stand a chance in an atmosphere where word definitions and favorite color partially comprise our public inquiry. For shame.

Posted by negentropy | July 24, 2007 7:56 AM

" "Wassup?" came the first question"

That's all I need to know to judge how seriously CNN took these debates. I imagine that the media gatekeepers, to a certain point, 'sabotaged' the selection by showcasing odd, inane, and bizarre questions - which on YouTube gets you tons of traffic but doesn't amount to a thing in a so-called debate. The underlying message being that the media gatekeepers are so much more principled and professional than these run-of-the-mill yokels, "We gave them their chance and the best they could come up with was a tired, 7 year old joke from a beer commercial - you better let us take the wheel, we'll let you know what's important from now on, we can really ask the hard questions..."

"A talking snowman, two rednecks and a woman speaking from her bathroom"

Great, what's next, can we get the video of the chimpanzee scratching his butt and then smelling his finger? That's always great for a couple of laffs.

and by the way, wouldn't 'redneck' be considered somewhat offensive to some people? along the same lines as nappy headed ho? just askin'

Posted by Angry Dumbo | July 24, 2007 7:59 AM

Campaign fatigue. No. That implies that I would have watched last night's debate. It is not frustrating that these questions were asked. The average You Tuber sits at their desk watching video of Britney Spears crotch. Of course they are going to ask stupid questions. Sadly, CNN chose these questions. Even more sadly, the bright bulbs at CNN thought these were "tough" questions.

So the narrative is written for the end of the wet noodle, America's print media, to repeat to the few who remain under their influence. Most of us are just despondent. It is not that we are turned off by 18 months of non-stop spin and the reduction of America's most pressing issues to sound bites, but that the MSM insults Americas world image by implying that You Tubers are the best our country has to offer.

At the end of the day CNN selected inane, non-substantive questions submitted by the empty heads of the You Tubers. The reporting of said "event" reflects the intellect of the target audience.

Posted by nash | July 24, 2007 8:17 AM

I loathe Biden but I am pretty disgusted at how your mischaracterized his answer on partitioning Iraq into three states under a single Federal government (his words).

If you want to convince people that Biden is wrong then you're going to have to have a better argument than 'the Turks are threatening a war.' I don't necessarily care what the Turks or the Iraqis want. I'm more concerned about what's best for America and I'd rather fight a war with Turkey than just sit around and allow them to walk all over us like Bush is letting the Iraninans get away with.

Posted by Papa Ray | July 24, 2007 8:32 AM

Every comment so far is on the mark.

But...everyone needs to understand that what we as commentors say, matters less than...well...less than the effort it took to make them.

Politics, Politicians and the American Government is broke.

We have to fix it the only legal way we can. By our votes. By our rejection of the way things have been done for the last fifty years.

Why? Because the only other way is by citizen rebellion. Bringing out the dusty guns, buying more ammo and doing it the hard, disagreeable, dangerous and violent way.

Which nobody wants (except for a few kooks).

But even if doing it that way is not acceptable and "unthinkable" now, later it might not be if it gets even worse.

It got so bad that our founders decided to do something. They over threw the British government of these American colonies.

It might just get so bad that it will become thinkable and doable, even if it is not acceptable.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Posted by Teresa | July 24, 2007 8:57 AM

The Republicans are going to have the same You Tube debate in September. If you feel like the questions were bad, why not lead a concerted effort here to have readers of this blog submit questions?

I actually thought the format wasn't bad -- it certainly was more interesting than other debates. The candidates seemed looser.

Posted by mw | July 24, 2007 9:32 AM

I did watch it. The questions were often inane, but not more inane than the questions asked by professional journalists and newstalk pundits in the fox, msnbc, and abc debates. In fact, they were not as boring as the questioning by the professionals, and did not elicit as much rote candidate talking points that was the hallmark of the majority of the responses in the debates that went before. In this political death march to the election, boredom, repetitiveness, and predictable replies will do more damage to electoral participation than injecting a little sophomoric humor.

For some questions, (Vietnam Vet, Soldier's Mom, Gay Couple), seeing who asked the question, and how they were asked (YouTube), were a huge improvement over prior formats. Seeing the people who were directly impacted by the policy and consequently really cared about the question asked (as opposed to watching Britt Hume or Chris Matthews preface a question with "Some people say ....") made the rote non-answers ring false, which was recognized by the candidates, and improved the quality of responses.

The format also presents a new vehicle for media bias to be injected into the debates. There was one question on gun law. Selecting a Michigan Militia type fondling an AK-47 and calling it his "baby" did a real disservice to those of us concerned about protecing 2nd amendment rights.

Posted by mw | July 24, 2007 9:46 AM

On another topic...

We have to fix it the only legal way we can. By our votes. By our rejection of the way things have been done for the last fifty years. Why? Because the only other way is by citizen rebellion. Bringing out the dusty guns, buying more ammo and doing it the hard, disagreeable, dangerous and violent way." - pr

Papa Ray - Did you watch O'Reilly last night? Bill and Michele Malkin were clucking their tongues, shaking their heads, and wagging their fingers because they (apparently) found a commenter on DailyKos who said we might need a shooting revolution to fix things in America. This was held up as an example of the out of control hatred and craziness on the left, and Kos's inability to manage his site.

Just thought you should know that you might find some recruits over on Kos.

I wonder if O'Reilly will be taking Captain Ed to task over your comment?

Posted by Papa Ray | July 24, 2007 9:50 AM

Selecting a Michigan Militia type fondling an AK-47 and calling it his "baby" did a real disservice to those of us concerned about protecing 2nd amendment rights.

Jeez, well yea mw, but that was the point of the selection by CNN. To make gun owners look like they need their guns taken away from them.

It was pre-meditated, planned and worked just great. It made CNN's case against Americans owning guns.

CNN and most of the other liberal Media is going to get their payback someday. Americans are going to see to it.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Posted by Monkei | July 24, 2007 9:54 AM

mw, after hearing about O'Reilly's comments I looked and could not find anything supporting a commentator calling for a revolution. What is a commentator on a blog? If it is merely a post calling for such which remains on the blog, then I imagine the same argument could be made against the Captain for leaving Papa Ray's post up for all to see?

I guess not believing everything O'Reilly says is always a good first step.

Posted by sherlock | July 24, 2007 10:10 AM

This farce was nothing more than a wonderful three-fer for the MSM to:
- throw softballs to their candidates
- shape the perception that, just as they always said, the people want to talk about what the MSM wants to talk about
- slide in the sub-message that the new media is a bunch of lightweights.

They will do much "better" next time with the Republicans, you can bet on it! All of a sudden the questions are going to become MUCH more probing!

And the "softballs" will go something like: "Who do you think hates us more, the Iraqi orphans or the Afghan orphans? And which taste better when our soldiers roast and eat them?"

Posted by Rockman44 | July 24, 2007 10:20 AM

When evaluating the questions, one has to evaluate the ones asking the questions. That is scary.

The Amercian public once again has show how shallow they are, how much they do not understand the real issues facing this nations, and give a very good example of how the MSM has shaped the thought processes of thos who use Youtube.

too bad CNN didn't have the guts to go out and try and acquire some real quesitons for the debate. But alas, that might have shown what we have for Dem candidates, and CNN certainly wouldn't want tha to happen. People might actually realize how shallow they are, how much they really don't understand though Biden seemingly does, about issues we as a nation have to face.

So, as someone previously stated, the sytem is broke, and if the Amercian people don't wake up and relaize its broke, and vote the bums and and start over with people who really care about we the people, the American people get what they deserve.

A bunch of political wimps who are all sound bits and not substance.

Posted by Papa Ray | July 24, 2007 10:28 AM

"Just thought you should know that you might find some recruits over on Kos.

I wonder if O'Reilly will be taking Captain Ed to task over your comment?"


Either you can't read, or you just can't understand what you read. Which I don't think is the case.

I just think that you are not informed, not worried and not convinced that our present government is indeed broke.

I'm not looking for recruits now or in the forseeable future.

But I am aware that there is only two ways to fix a government that is broke.

If you want to ignore the other way, that is your choice. If it is not "the only other way", you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

No one but kooks and idiots want to start another American revolution now. But only liberal socialists, those that want to ignore reality, and those that ignore history and the lessons learned, will ignore and not accept that rebellion and revolution might be the only other way we can restore an American government that is for the people and by the people, if we can't vote in the leaders that American demands and needs.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Posted by PRE | July 24, 2007 10:51 AM

Sorry to disagree but I loved the format. I'm so tired of the well-crafted question that every campaign knows way in advance how to answer. They were real questions from real people, some of them were silly - but so are real people sometimes. I thought Anderson did an admirable job of trying to keep the candidates away from their talking points.

I thought many of the questions were blunt and direct in a way that a journalist who then has to count on the candidate for access could not be. I watched the debate and there were several times when the crowd audibly 'oohhed' at the questions.

I'm hopeful that the GOP debate goes as well and I really hope that a few more candidates excuse themselves before then as the biggest complaint I had was that there was little opportunity to provide substantive answers or to get the right questions to the right people. Who cares what Gravel thinks? It'd be nice to have Fred there too, but I'm not holding my breath there.

Posted by Ray | July 24, 2007 11:31 AM

I didn't watch the debates so I am ill suited to supply a critique but I hope this type of debate is used in every election as it offers the American public access to something that has traditionally been allowed to only a select few. It may not have been up to the standards of some people, but then again, neither is reality.

Posted by mw | July 24, 2007 12:43 PM

"Either you can't read, or you just can't understand what you read. Which I don't think is the case." - pr

True. Not the case. I was just reading your comment the way Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin reads comments on DailyKos.

Posted by Neo | July 24, 2007 2:52 PM

Zahn Resigns from CNN

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Posted by Stillanerd | July 24, 2007 5:25 PM

[quote]I'm so tired of the well-crafted question that every campaign knows way in advance how to answer.[/quote]

Ah, but it's probably more than likely that the Democratic candidates DID know these questions in advance. A political commentator on MSNBC (which Rush Limbaugh picked up) pointed out that the questions from the YouTubers were accessible on the internet well before the actual debate on CNN. It's very likely that the staffers of the various Democratic candidates did some "homework" by looking at the various videos and preparing their questions accordingly. Granted, they wouldn't know which videos would be used, but basically you can say the same thing about an open book test. So if anything, this debate format made it MORE likely for candidates to give pre-prepared statements, not less.

Posted by PRE | July 24, 2007 6:04 PM

If they can prepare for almost 4000 questions on a wide-range of issues then they have my admiration. I thought several of the candidates seemed unprepared for many of the questions, so I'm not sure that anyone did that. As the format grows in popularity, it will be even harder for the candidates to prepare. If nothing else, preparing for the substance of the question doesn't detract from the fact that the style of the question was much more direct than we ever get in these talking head contests.

Posted by jr565 | July 24, 2007 6:05 PM

You Tube and presidential debates just do not mix. Having you tube viewers ask questions creatively (ie with sockpuppets, playing guitars, in robotic voices or dressed like Spiderman etc) while appealing to You Tube viewers, really makes the debates look stupid and shmaltzy.
Debates are already dry, boring and the candidates wooden and disingenous. Throwing absurdity on top of that doesn't exactly add gravitas or seriousness to the proceedings. It makes all involved look like a bunch of idiots.
I half expected someone to ask a question dressed in a clown suit. It cetainly wouldn't be any dumber than the guy who sang his question, or the two hill billys. Why not have some ask questions dressed up like Hanz and Franz and makes stupid body buidling jokes in between the "serious" questions or have somebody juggling while asking a question. Have the Robot from the Buck Rogers show ask a question.

Just throwing out some ideas to make the presidential debates even better.