The YouTube Moment

ArtcandidatescnnThe YouTube debate on CNN has a winner — and that is YouTube.

Where else can you have a snowman ask a question, and have a candidate answer it, seriously?

The video-sharing site certainly has had an impact on the election, but the debate helped establish its credentials as a serious outlet for political debate. So far known for such videos as Obamagirl, or politicians caught saying “macaca,” You Tube delivered a handful of what could be called provocative questions that added a twist to a format that has grown stale and bulky. Here it was actually getting more people involved in the process, even if it came in the form of amateur, often crude videos that wouldn’t even make public access.

Sure, the event didn’t live up to its billing. Other debates have allowed people direct access to candidates, whether they were in the audience or if they sent queries via email. Leading up to the event, CNN anchors called it “exciting” and groundbreaking, even though what the candidates answered wasn’t much different from what they say all the time on the stump (see the Variety story here). But the debate also didn’t come across as a frivolous gimmick, as some of the more bizarre entries were weeded out, like one from a man dressed up like a viking. Instead there were numerous questions on a range of issues, from the specific (about social security payments from the wealthy) to the challenging (are troops in Iraq dying in vain?). If the questioners sometimes appeared off kilter, what they were asking was most often relevant.

The mix of old and new media largely worked — but one would not have without the other. You Tube provided entirely relevant questions, from some 3,000 submitted, and CNN came through with a moderator who could keep the candidates focused and provide the needed doses of wit. When Chris Dodd presented an offbeat, half-minute YouTube video that used his strands of white hair as metaphors, Cooper said wryly, “Nothing wrong with the white hair.”

There was overkill. Two hours was too much time; 90 minutes would have sufficed.  I also would have preferred fewer questions with more follow up. For example, Barack Obama was asked why the past bans on interracial marriage  should be any different than the current ban on gay marriage. He answered by suggesting that civil unions make everything equal, and churches should be left to decide marriage. Does he still oppose gay marriage? It was on to the next question.

Some bizarre questions did filter through, as if CNN just could help it. Two Tennessee men posing as country country bumpkins asked the candidates if their feelings were hurt by all the attention that Al Gore was getting. “Anderson, I think the people in Tennessee just had their feelings hurt,” Joseph Biden said.

Wisely, the candidates steered clear of trying to outdo the irreverence of the questioners, as if they knew they were the straight-men (and women) and YouTube users were the stars. There were no presidential contenders exclaiming “whassup” (used by one of the first questioners).  There were surprisingly few brazen attempts at empathy. In fact, the candidates at some points didn’t seem to know what to make of the whole affair.

It didn’t matter, for this debate was really about the questioners, what was on their minds and what they were thinking. In six months, this format may look just as stale as moderator/panel. But for now, YouTube managed to give forums an extra jolt.

Final note: During the debate, I did some live blogging — until I was under the gun to finish the story — with a variety of different journalists from around the country on the Back roads to the White House blog.

And here’s more from Billiam, the global warming snowman, who asked a question last night. I would have said that some kind of production deal is in the offing…if people are still into Mr. Bill.

Here is the actual question:

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