CNN/YouTube Republican debate fails to wow

Debate needed quicker pace, more personal questions from YouTube users, critics say

The first CNN/YouTube debate in July, featuring Democratic presidential candidates, drew mixed reviews from academics and the blogosphere. Last night's second CNN/YouTube debate, which featured the Republican candidates, was even less successful, according to initial feedback.

The Republican debate held in Florida on Wednesday featured 34 video questions for the candidates that were submitted to YouTube Inc. Most of the questions focused on less personal topics than those lobbed at the Democrats, noted Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa's Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

"It wasn't nearly as interesting as the first try at the YouTube stuff," he said. "CNN took many personalized questions from the YouTube submissions for the Democratic debate -- people looking for help with individual problems susceptible to governmental interventions. The Republicans got few individualized questions, but in the main, [they got] generic, passionless inquiries about war, borders, the space program, the Bible, Roe v. Wade, farm subsidies and, of course, tax increases. Ho hum."

Overall, he added that the "circus, the spectacle of political and personal banter" overwhelmed the goal of the debate -- to allow voters themselves to play a larger role in the debate process. "Maybe politicians and the networks are not yet ready to let open-source politics hold sway even for two hours during the almost year-and-a-half this country will spend on primaries and caucuses."

Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, noted that the Republican candidates squandered their opportunities to create YouTube-style videos to be aired during the debate and instead reverted to old-school attack advertisements.

"Everybody likes the idea of finding a way to include Americans more in the debate process," she said. "We're running a YouTube-style debate like an old-style debate. I don't just mean CNN as the gatekeepers, but giving the candidates too much time to go back and forth. People watch two-minute clips on YouTube. They don't watch very slow, long drawn-out pieces. We need something faster to keep people engaged in what is going on."

Micah Sifry, a blogger at, noted that while a few questions from the debate packed an emotional punch because they obviously were personal to the voters in the video, "fewer of them seemed to hit that mark" than in the Democratic debate.

"Where were the questions on topics like the economy, jobs, health care, the fall of the dollar, trade, political reform (beyond pork), the environment or energy?" Sifry wrote. "Could CNN have thought those were 'Democratic hand grenades?' Strange, given how much time they gave to topics like immigration, guns and the Bible. When you look at the questions that were submitted to YouTube for the debate, you'll see plenty in the top 40 most viewed that touch on energy, the environment, health care and political reform. Very odd that these were not included."

Sifry also lamented about the compressed format of the debate, with all the candidates' remarks squeezed into short answers and rebuttals

"This is no way to interview the candidates for president," Sifry noted. "This is the Internet Age, folks. We don't have to put up with the constrained world of television. Enough already!"

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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