Tuned In

The CNN/YouTube Debate: Outsourcing Journalism

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The major issue at the Republican YouTube debate: outsourcing. Not outsourcing as addressed in any of the questions; outsourcing in the form of the questions.

Two YouTube debates into the campaign, it’s becoming clear that the format is not really about the possibilities of a new medium (as at the Democratic one, there were a few creative presentations, but most of the better questions were simply heads on a screen). Not really about the voice of the people, either. Yes, the people got to ask the questions, but CNN decided what made air, and in what order, and usually to whom they were addressed. Anderson Cooper even kicked off the night by introducing a reel of questions–including one from the Snowman, popular with YouTube but not with Mitt Romney—that would not get aired. (And the less said about the folksinger intro the better.)

A real Web 2.0 debate would let the public set the forum’s priorities, by airing the most-viewed questions at YouTube or those voted on by YouTube visitors. (You could give CNN a set number of vetoes to keep the questions from being dominated by cranks and Obama Girl, but the remaining questions would still actually be in the order of what the public actually wanted to hear.)

No, the real distinction of Debate 2.0, for better and worse, was that it allowed CNN to outsource the question-asking, giving themselves cover: “Hey, we didn’t ask that. Some guy on the Internet did.” At the outset, used its YouTubers to front-load the debate with shark-chum immigration questions–guaranteed to spark the expected fight between Romney and Rudy Giuliani–that MSM journalists would have. (A better question, given the Florida setting, would have been to ask the candidates their stance on the present and past immigration of Cubans, otherwise known in the state as “the good immigrants.”)

But as the debate went on we began to see some benefits of outsourcing. Plenty of questions were as ordinary and unilluminating as at any TV debate. But the better questions to come out of YouTube were ones that mainstream journalists wouldn’t have asked, for fear of seeming biased (as I said last time, bias produces some of the best questions) or because they strayed from the standard campaign-2008 talking points.

Thus you had someone taking Ron Paul seriously enough to challenge him on whether he believed in a conspiracy to unite North America under one government. (Prompting a reply that included, “The Trilateral Commission is real.”) And: if abortion is made illegal, should women who get them be charged with a crime? And: “The death penalty: What would Jesus do?” (The pointed phrasing was essential, but few journalists would have used it.)

Or: Do you believe in the literal truth of the Bible? (Paraphrasing can’t do calciumboy’s unsettlingly intense delivery justice, so I embedded it above.) The question may not have mattered to many voters, but to some Christians it’s terribly important, and the three answers it elicited were likely of great interest to them. (Even to some non-Christian and non-religious voters, like me. If a candidate believes that God literally created the world in seven Earth-days and turned a woman into salt, you bet I want to know that.) Giuliani answered frankly but from an empiricist’s perspective–Jonah didn’t actually get swallowed by a whale and survived, etc. Romney’s answer was probably more technically satisfying to evangelicals but again came off highly calculated. And Mike Huckabee, the minister, answered like someone who’d actually read a Bible and wasn’t uncomfortable interpreting it. Again, a question many religion-leery, offense-shy journos wouldn’t have touched.

Likewise, the question about why black people generally don’t vote Republican, though culturally many hold conservative beliefs, was thought-provoking and productive. But most debate panelists, i.e., white guys, would be terrified to phrase it that way, or perhaps any way, for fear of sounding racist. (Much less the black-on-black crime question.)

There were limits to the daring of the YouTubers. The man who asked Giuliani if he was exploiting 9/11 to win the White House deflected the question as coming from “a friend.” The voices weren’t entirely “outsider.” Grover Norquist? What the hell? He doesn’t get on TV often enough? And Anderson Cooper took it on himself to ask a question about a late-breaking Politico report that Giuliani mis-billed New York City agencies for his security detail for trips to the Hamptons while mayor. (Though Cooper was apparently too embarrassed to articulate the sleazier subtext of the question–i.e., “trips to the Hamptons where you were probably visiting your mistress“–which you had to read the original article to discover. A YouTuber probably would have had the stones to come out and say it.)

Cooper did, at least, perform the moderator’s function of following up to get answers when the questioners couldn’t. He particularly bird-dogged Romney, who came off rattled and evasive when Cooper asked if he still believed a 1994 statement he made, saying that he looked forward to the day when gays could serve openly in the military.

In the end, YouTube hasn’t been a panacea for the debate format, but it’s been better than nothing. In terms style and substance, CNN probably got the debate it would have without YouTube: the candidates’ strategies and choice of which opponents to attack were probably driven more by the latest Iowa polls than by the questions. But for occasionally producing questions CNN wouldn’t have asked, or asking them better than the professionals would have, the change-up was welcome. In the end, CNN didn’t “give YouTubers a voice.” The YouTubers gave CNN one.

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