Editorial: Voice of the Public Enlivens Debates

Dec 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The second CNN/YouTube presidential debate last week solidified a notion that we had in July when the first CNN/YouTube presidential debate was aired: This format delivers great television.
A large part of the success is the debate’s primary conceit: Why not use video—which, after all, is the essence of television—as the engine of the debate?
Prior to the marriage of YouTube videos with the standard talking-head debate format, one just had debates that consisted of the talking heads. And that might or might not be compelling, depending upon what was being talked about and the intonation level of those participating.
But far too often they are just boringly polite. Polite doesn’t make gripping TV.
What the addition of the YouTube videos provides is a messiness factor. That was evidenced especially by the queries selected by CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman for last week’s debate.
Most of the John Smiths and Maria Garcias who make videos with questions for the candidates are not professional journalists or videographers. So the questions are pointed and the videos are, at best, of the messy “America’s Funniest Home Videos” caliber. There’s nothing polite about ’em.
And even when a video from a citizen with some notoriety is chosen, the results can be gripping.
For example, one of the videos selected was by David McMillan. Mr. McMillan, who wrote for “Judging Amy,” gained some attention when he posted a video on YouTube on why he should be hired to write for a TV show. He posts a regular video series on YouTube called NewsInColor.
His submission just had him talking into the camera:
“On a variety of specific issues—gay marriage, taxes, the death penalty, immigration, faith-based initiatives, school vouchers, school prayer—many African Americans hold fairly conservative views. And yet we overwhelmingly vote Democratic in most elections. So my question to any of the Republican candidates is, ‘Why don’t we vote for you?’”
What a terrific question. And not one that would generally be asked in that way during a traditional debate.
For some, the CNN/YouTube debate last week may have been too messy. It’s still hard sometimes to hear what’s said on some of the videos, and nary a follow-up question is asked.
But kudos to host Anderson Cooper for insisting—as much as he could—that the candidates actually answer the questions.
Part of what made last week’s debate so successful was its proximity to early January’s Iowa caucus, which encouraged many of the Republican candidates in the debate to drop most vestiges of politeness themselves.
Still, a lot of credit goes to the format. We would urge both parties to continue incorporating user-generated videos into their debates.


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