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YouTube/CNN presidential debate gets mixed reviews

Questions more authentic, but format needs work, say academics, bloggers

By Heather Havenstein
July 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The first debate to tap directly into the increasingly popular online social media -- prompting some to call the 2008 race for the White House the "YouTube Election" -- drew mixed reviews from academics and the blogosphere alike.

Allowing potential voters to submit online videos that the Democratic presidential candidates addressed Monday during the live televised YouTube/CNN debate yielded more authentic questions than would have come from a moderator in a traditional debate format, many observers agreed.

But what was billed as something of a "discussion" between YouTube users and the candidates was limited, some said, by the lack of a two-way discussion between the YouTube users in the 35-plus videos that were aired during the debate and the candidates.

Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of The Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, noted that the questions were tough, touching on topics like gay marriage, global warming, health care and the Iraq war. "These are things someone moderating a debate could not ask politely, [but] when the American people do it, it was because they wanted an authentic answer," Germany said. "This isn't your same old debate."

But she noted that the candidates spent more time debating one another and moderator Anderson Cooper than engaging directly with the people who made the YouTube videos. "It was a great effort, but let's see more dialogue, more follow-up questions from the YouTube questioners," she said.

However, Edward Lee, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in law and technology, wrote in his blog that CNN and YouTube "botched the debate" by not allowing all candidates to answer any of the substantive questions, "even though many of the YouTube users posed their questions specifically to the entire group of candidates. For a two-hour debate, that's pretty appalling."

In addition, Lee criticized CNN for choosing to air some of the more gimmicky videos -- like a person singing and asking for a pardon for a parking ticket and a snowman asking about global warming -- instead of sticking to the serious questions.

Rod Carveth, an associate professor in the communications arts department at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., said that the CNN's role as a member of the traditional media may have limited how much new ground the debate could break. "It wasn't revolutionary," Carveth said. "It is not all of a sudden we are in an entirely new era. You're talking about new media being filtered through old media. There is going to be something modified in the translation."

The questions, however, did get to more of what the American public is interested in, Carveth added. "The only thing that was kind of different was that there were more questions about domestic type of issues," he said. "Most of the previous debates have focused so much on the Iraq war. [But Americans] also have concerns about health care and everything from gay rights to Social Security.

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