by Katelyn Harding
It’s safe to say presidential politics has seen nothing quite like them.
Fifteen years after ABC’s Carole Simpson broke ground by moderating the first presidential debate with audience participation, CNN and YouTube have created a contemporary debate standard. This year, Republicans and Democrats have been subjected to questions from oddities such as a talking snowman, a guy who fired off a few rounds and tossed his gun to a friend, and a cartoon Dick Cheney.
It was all part of the CNN/YouTube debates held this primary season. The debates featured videotaped questions submitted by citizens across the country—nearly 3,000 submissions for the Democratic debate and almost 5,000 submissions for the Republican debate.
The submissions were posted on YouTube, but CNN was in charge of question selection. CNN considered YouTube user responses such as view counts, comments and ratings, according to a YouTube spokeswoman. The final questions were chosen based on originality, personal perspective, video and audio quality, and length.
The videos varied in style – sometimes funny, at times serious, but all uniquely personal. They included a lesbian couple who asked the candidates if they should be allowed to marry. There was a man dressed as a polar bear who asked about global warming. A third video showed a man gripping a Bible who asked the candidates if they believed every word in it.
It was at times entertaining, but begged the question: Was this good politics or was this merely good theater, designed to raise ratings rather than inform the public?
Political observers are divided when it comes to the answer, though most acknowledged that the debates did engage a public weary of debate after debate and of a campaign that seems to have started years ago.
Linda Gallant, assistant professor in the Organizational and Political Communication Department at Emerson College, said the CNN/YouTube merger highlights the convergence of two different media.
“It certainly can be positive for the person sitting out there watching — the people who are kind of older — knowing that there is this other force (YouTube) driving certain public opinion. It’s good to let people know,” Gallant said.
David C. King, a lecturer on public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy’s School of Government, said having the primaries so early this cycle has decreased voter interest. King said anything that increases interest is a good thing, “and the YouTube debates did exactly that.” King also said he believes that these debates were successful in engaging younger voters.
“The untold story of 2004 was that younger people turned out (to vote) in huge numbers since 1972,” King said. “With this particular type of debates, they’re going to reach the demographic that needs to be reached, and yes (it’s a) good way to engage (younger) voters.”
Gallant also said the “entertainment” aspect of the debates attracts a younger demographic because it allows the audience to actively participate.
“YouTube is not just a mass media, it’s a social media, where people in the audience are not just active — like in the traditional, rhetorical speech situation — they are creative, too,” Gallant said.
Information or entertainment?
But Donna L. Halper, a media historian and adjunct professor of journalism at Emerson College, said the YouTube debates were “a bunch of sound and fury that amounted to a whole lot of nothing.”
Halper has a background in newspaper and radio and has followed the presidential debates throughout her career. She said she failed to see how the CNN/YouTube debates brought anything new or useful to the table.
“This entire thing was less about democracy than about creating a show that was a spectacle, something that viewers who normally dislike politics would watch, like a reality TV show,” Halper said. “I wish we could really see a debate, rather than dueling sound bites.”
Raymond J. La Raja, an assistant professor of political science at UMass-Amherst, shares Halper’s skepticism. “I don’t know how much (the debates are) expanding the audience,” La Raja said. “It’s unclear to me that they are expanding beyond young people. In my sense of it, it’s not hugely creating a bigger audience.”
Another criticism of the YouTube debates was CNN’s final video choices. In Walter Shapiro’s Nov. 29 Salon.com article, he voiced his discontent with the previous day’s GOP YouTube debate.
“What sent me into a free fall of depression was CNN’s instinct for the fatuous in choosing the debate questions,” Shapiro wrote. “The fault is not with the earnest YouTubers who sent in questions. The blame entirely rests with Anderson Cooper…and his CNN cohorts who seemed more concerned with goosing the ratings than with grasping the world that the next president will inherit.”
Gallant agreed with Shapiro’s frustration that the questions were filtered during the YouTube debates. “There is still a framing going on, through the media picking certain videos to air,” she said. “Is it really coming from the public? I think from a journalistic perspective that (question) needs to be out there, needs to be put up front.”
Another concern raised about the CNN/YouTube GOP debate was that a question had been planted by a Democrat. One of the videos featured a retired military man, Keith Kerr, who asked the candidates why gays can’t openly serve. After the debate, CNN discovered that Kerr was associated with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Right-wingers were angry that Kerr’s video was chosen, but Gallant said planting questions is nothing new.
“In past campaigns there have been plants in audiences, live audiences, so a plant in the video is still the same process happening, but just using different platform to do it,” Gallant said.
What is the future of forums such as the CNN/YouTube debates?
Looking back to the election four years ago, Gallant noted the lack of video content online then. She said it is impossible to predict the technology that will be used in the 2012 presidential election.
“What I definitely think is going to happen as the voting population starts to age more, is that people are going to trust technology more,” she said. “If technology is used more in campaigns, it will become more naturalized.”
Gallant also brought up the idea of integrating the audience directly and immediately into debates in the future, perhaps using websites such as Digg, which allows users to vote instantaneously on which stories and posts they do and don’t like.
“An interesting thing might be that people (will be able to) vote on content at home on their computers giving thumbs up and thumbs down on the answers (the candidates give) to automatically test what the candidates are saying along with millions of other people,” Gallant said.
Gallant’s prediction is a more intense version of the MTV/MySpace generated presidential forums in which candidates were invited to participate. These forums allowed each candidate to speak to a live audience, with people asking questions on their home computers. In addition, the computer audience also voted on whether they liked the candidates’ answers. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and former Sen. John Edwards have participated in the forums, with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s forum next.
Despite the criticism of the CNN/YouTube debates, there already is speculation CNN/YouTube will host a debate between the eventual presidential nominees.
Paul J. Gough from Reuters wrote in his Dec. 3 article that “CNN and YouTube have heard that the Commission on Presidential Debates…is interested in talking about a YouTube component to their debates.”
To view Harding’s YouTube segment, click here.
Click below for YouTube’s breakdown of the debates:
Republican Debate (http://www.youtube.com/republicandebate)
Democratic Debate (http://www.youtube.com/democraticdebate)