Assessing the CNN-YouTube Debate

Last night the eight Democrats running for their party's nomination in the 2008 presidential race met for a historic moment: the first-ever jointly sponsored CNN-YouTube debate. In the end, a couple dozen questions were fielded, selected from the 3,000-odd video inquiries submitted by average voters from across the country. So how'd they do? No, not the candidates—they're all pros who stayed reliably on message. How well did the citizenry hold the powers-that-hope-to-be to account? Was it a glorious flowering of a level of direct democracy the Founding Fathers never dreamed of? A novel ad vehicle? The death knell for the Fourth Estate?

CNN hyped the event heavily on its Web site, crowing in its recap that though the cable network "vetted the questions, it was the first time that a journalist or a professional has not dictated what is asked of the candidates. The control was solely in the voters' hands." Actually, the control was in Anderson Cooper's hands—a fact which rankled many dedicated YouTubers, who would have preferred that CNN air the most popular videos submitted. It was the telegenic young anchor who moderated the event, struggling to keep meandering candidates on topic. And it was Cooper, we are told, that led the initiative to whittle the 3,000 video submissions down to 25-30. Perhaps we should be grateful. The debate kicked off with a rundown of videos that didn't make the cut. A child asking about Social Security was clearly being coaxed and coached by her parents; a lady in a giant chicken suit was just too weird.

Still, some strange ones slipped through the gates. A pair of hammy hillbillies from Tennessee asked if all the will-he-or-won't-he over former vice president Al Gore's intention to run hurts the candidates' feelings; an animated snowman asked what the candidates planned to do about global warming ("a silly video on a serious topic," explained Cooper). But most of the questions were posted online in advance of the debate, giving candidates ample time to see what appeared to be at the forefront of voters' minds.

Perhaps this is why, for all the hype, this debate was not effectively that much different from all the others to date. Yes, there were a few made-for-TV surprises: a black Southern Baptist minister from North Carolina who submitted a video likening the gay marriage debate to the civil rights struggle was invited to join the audience to hit former Sen. John Edwards with a follow-up question. Edwards and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware were asked which Republicans they would consider including on their ticket (Chuck Hagel was the preferred choice). New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, for her part, was asked if she considers herself a liberal (she prefers "progressive"). For the most part, the masses asked the same kinds of questions as the chattering classes—on the war, race relations, health care, education, Hurricane Katrina and gay marriage. And they had every bit as much trouble getting the candidates to break stride and make some news.

While journalists are loath to inject their personal lives into their questions, the YouTube crowd thrived on it. "Mary and Jen" from Brooklyn, N.Y., asked the candidates if they would let them get married ... "to each other"—and then gazed longingly (and a little comically) into each others' eyes. But the personal touch didn't shake anybody from their position papers. Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd said they would not allow the two to wed—because they support civil unions rather than gay marriage—while Rep. Dennis Kucinich proudly proclaimed he would. A mother whose son is serving a second tour of duty in Iraq asked about the war; "Kim," who is bald from chemotherapy and hoping to survive breast cancer, asked about the costs of preventive health care. The hope was that this debate would appeal to younger voters, empowering those who may feel disenfranchised—and perhaps circumvent the kinds of horse-race questions that political reporters obsess over. If the questioners are significantly more optimistic than the press corps, it wasn't immediately apparent. In "every single question we've heard," Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said toward the end of the debate, "you see cynicism about the capacity to change this country."

Most of the videos were very straightforward: a lo-fi close-up of a voter asking a question. It's a good thing, too. Those who got more creative were thwarted by old media's means of showing the new media off. CNN filmed the screen showing a music video about No Child Left Behind from a distance, rendering it unintelligible. One of the questions on health care—a man flipping through a succession of signs that told the story of his disability—suffered a similar fate. Next time maybe CNN will let the YouTube videos fill the entire TV screen so we can actually, like, watch them. (In the spirit of the evening, we watched the debate streaming live on CNN.com. A brief memo to the network: if you want to look all Web-savvy, try to have some online programming or analysis lined up during the breaks. The online host rambled and repeated herself; a technical glitch made it impossible to hear any audio of highlights for a time.)

And the candidates? They stayed largely in formation, with Hillary further polishing her front runner posture, and the rest trying (though seemingly not that hard) to distinguish themselves from the annoyingly large pack. Kucinich rallied the antiwar left, while former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel grew ever grumpier, complaining whenever he spoke that he was not getting enough time to talk. When asked to defend a previous statement he had made about Vietnam, he answered: "I like the question; I don't get many of them, thank you." Then he asked the audience, losing his cool, "Has it been fair?"

One submitter asked what the candidates would do to protect his "baby"—and then revealed that his baby was an assault weapon. "If that's his baby, he needs help," quipped Biden. It played well to the immediate audience, but presumably insulted the voter directly, and a large swath of gun owners across the country along with him. Edwards, who was slick throughout, apparently contracted foot-in-mouth disease immediately before the last question was asked. All the candidates were told to say one thing they like and one thing they dislike about the person standing to his or her left. Edwards looked at Clinton and said, "I don't know about your coat." Maybe it wasn't just the YouTube submitters who needed a filter last night.

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