August 2, 2007

The YouTube Debate Debate

On a substantive level, last week’s CNN/YouTube debate drew mixed reviews among traditional media outlets, fake news pundits and the liberal blogosphere. But despite some obvious areas for improvement, the format clearly succeeded in generating buzz about the Democratic primary race — particularly among the highly-coveted 18-34 year olds who turned out in droves to watch their favorite candidates discuss serious policy issues with ersatz rednecks and a creepy animatronic snowman.

Since no successful idea goes unduplicated in modern political campaigning, I was surprised to read that several Republican frontrunners are considering bowing out of their own YouTube debate, currently scheduled for September. Rudy Giuliani has hinted that he will not attend due to unspecified “scheduling conflicts”, and Mitt Romney, without officially ruling out an appearance, appears decidedly nonplussed by the whole idea (maybe he’s nervous about a potential appearance by his friend Flip?). Conservative activist/blogger/radio host Hugh Hewitt has been leading the charge against the format, arguing that left-wing activists will saturate YouTube with questions designed to make the candidates look bad, and that CNN (as a component of the “liberal MSM”) will make sure that only the most biased of the bunch get chosen for the national TV audience.

While there are obviously a number of issues at play here, one that I find particularly salient is the question of who gets to play the gatekeeper role in the debates. Most criticism of the YouTube format (from both left and right) has boiled down to some variation of “my preferred entity didn’t get enough say in the process of creating and/or selecting the questions” (see, e.g., Hewitt co-blogger Patrick Ruffini’s comment that his concerns about the debate would be alleviated if it was relaunched as the “Fox News / YouTube debate”, or numerous complaints by liberal internet activists about CNN’s role in selecting the “best” questions).

Hopefully criticism of the YouTube format will encourage the media, the major parties and even individual candidates to experiment with different debate formats that incorporate the internet in interesting ways. Maybe one day I’ll be able to participate in an online chat with Barack Obama during lunch, listen to a podcast debate between Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee on my subway ride home, and then turn on the TV later that night for a semi-mediated debate between all the candidates. In the meantime, I’d expect to hear more complaints as the established players get pushed out of their respective comfort zones a bit.