Tuned In

Lessons of the YouTube Debate

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I knew we were in trouble when we saw the Viking. CNN’s buildup to the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate has been schizo: they want to present it as a revolution in politics, by empowering the Web 2.0 Nation, and they want to present it as entertainment, by showing off the goofy videos. (Which, to be fair, time.com has been doing in the past week too.) Anderson Cooper put YouTube’s clown-shoed foot forward first, beginning the debate with a montage of wacky videos: the viking, the KISS guy, the chicken lady. The mixed message: This is your moment in the spotlight, YouTube America. You dorks.

Which brings us to the first message of the CNN/YouTube debate: the ultimate power lies not with the question asker but with the question chooser. As in any “town hall” style debate, you get not just the voice of America, as voiced by Americans, but the picture of America that the people culling the questions choose to present. It wasn’t always a bad one. Sometimes the questions even improved on the standard journalist-interrogator format. But not always–in fact, not usually–because of the advantages and vocabulary of web video.

It’s the Message, Not the Medium (Mostly). The most gimmicky videos were usually not the best. OK, the snowman was pretty funny, but the question–which amounted to “What will you do about climate change?” just invited canned stump-speech lines. The two hillbillies asking about Al Gore was a waste of 30 seconds, although ten dollars says those guys have a pilot deal by the end of the week. And the folksinging song about taxes would have worked only if the candidates were required to answer musically, Singing Bee-style.

The most refreshing questions weren’t good because they used effects or video or (please God) singing. They were just a head in a frame, talking. How do you defend using religious beliefs to oppose gay marriage? How do you define liberal, and would you call yourself one? Can’t atheists be patriotic Americans the same as religious people? They worked, in other words, not because of technology but because they were plain questions from ordinary people. (Most thankfully, we got almost none of the process, strategy and electability questions journalist moderators love to ask.)

There were a couple of videos that used YouTube’s possibilities to good advantage, such as the Darfur question with images of refugee children. And while the No Child Left Behind rock song was embarrassing, the video used sign cards along with the lyrics to add a second layer of information to the question. Which brings us to another point…

Bias Is Good! Some of the better questions were ones that journalists would never have asked, or phrased in quite such a way, because the questioners had a clear opinion on what answers they did and didn’t want to hear. The lesbian couples’ question, for instance–“Would you allow us to be married… to each other?”–was just a variation on a boilerplate policy question, but it had the added edge of forcing the candidate to directly confront someone invested in the answer. Likewise, I have a hard time imagining a journalist, as a woman from Planned Parenthood did, whether the candidates had discussed sex with their kids using “medically appropriate terms”–but the question forced some out-of-the-ordinary answers.

It’s worth thinking about, anyway, at a time when so much media criticism is focused on journalists’ political donations or Rupert Murdoch’s politics, but the fact is, sometimes good questions emerge from bias–that is, from a questioner with a passionate interest in the answer. That said…

You Can Ask the Question, But You Can’t Force the Answer. On the answering end, this ultimately wasn’t much different from any other debate. You can evade a YouTube question the same ways you do any other–changing the subject, falling back on platitudes, talkingreallyfasttogetpasttheunpopularanswer–and the candidates did this on subjects from Iraq to reparations. And while Cooper eventually began wading in to insist on answers, the debate sometimes missed the give-and-take of having a questioner there to follow up.

But then, if the candidates felt compelled to evade the questions, that means they were treating their amateur inquisitors just like real live journalistic moderators. Congratulations, YouTube, You really have arrived.