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.