CNN/You Tube Debate: A Sizzler or a Snoozer?

In a conference call to reporters this morning, CNN and You Tube unveiled plans for what they are billing as a groundbreaking new twist in presidential debates, no less than an expansion of democracy tailored to the Internet era.

Instead of some cynical pesky journalist getting to pose questions to the candidates, on July 23 CNN will host a debate of Democratic candidates in which the queries will come almost entirely from anyone who wants to post a video query on YouTube. A similar Republican forum will be held on Sept. 17.

But a few cynicial journalists wanted to know — is this really different than what we’ve already seen. After all, recent debates have featured questions submitted to news orgs via e-mail, not to mention those posed from the debate audience. Is this just a gimmick?

“The fundemental difference is that in the past people had to be present in the room, you had to be invited in,” said CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein.

YouTube already has posted some of the samples on its site. One features a man asking a question from what is clearly a low income neighborhood. He wants to know what candidates will do to curb predatory lending practices.

“I actually believe we are going to see some incredibly inventive” videos, said David Bohrman, CNN senior VP and its D.C. bureau chief. “I will be shocked if the day after the debate you write, ‘ho hum.'”

Nevertheless, CNN still be the one selecting the questions. As with other YouTube videos, users will be able to post comments on the queries, before and after the debate. But their “star ratings” will be kept from the campaigns — they don’t want to give candidates any clues beforehand as to what will be asked.

“It is all about giving context to the questions so that you know where it is coming from,” says Steve Grove, YouTube’s editor of news and politics.

YouTube and CNN are hoping for a few thousand submissions, and anticipate that some 20 to 30 will be shown during each of the two hour debates. In a sense, the debate will continue for days or even weeks afterwards, as YouTube will post questions and candidate answers so users can comment and respond.

While both orgs say that the aim is to inject some authenticity into the process, there are limits. Anyone who’s been to a town hall meeting knows that there’s always someone who doesn’t want to ask a question but make a statement — and a long-winded one. Questions, yes, questions, much be kept to 30 seconds.

“Questions longer than 30 will not get used,” Bortman says. “They may not even get considered.”

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