So begins the first video to introduce the Republican candidates at last night's CNN/YouTube debate. Poring through just under five thousand submissions (4,926 in all) to YouTube, journalists in CNN's political unit pared down the numbers until they hit 34. (and given all the banter over the Boston Red Sox, maybe that has some significance. hmm.) Meaning, roughly, that just under 1% of the videos were going to be seen by the candidates. Or, unless after doing an extensive and exhaustive search on YouTube, anybody who watched the debate. (CNN reportedly pulled many of the videos from the public for review.)
With more than two thousand more entries for the Republican debate than for the Democrats' debate in July, are Republicans just that much more YouTube savvy than the Democrats, or is this model really allowing citizens to get the issues most important to them out in the open? Is this kind of user-generated video debate the best way to spark activism and interest in politics? And is it actually working?
The New York Times's blog coverage of the presidential race did a nice job of explaining the "behind-the-scenes" action when it came to deciding what videos got picked. An interview with CNN Washington bureau chief and one of the executive producers of the debate David Bohrman revealed that a lot of careful reviewing and editorial decisions went into selecting the final videos. In a similar article on Broadcasting & Cable, despite the perhaps more democratic flavor of selecting the debate questions, the focus remained on:
"... a serious debate, a Republican debate," Bohrman added. "We're going to weed out the obvious sort of Democratic gotcha grenades that are there to just be disruptive. The campaigns were all nervous that there'd be this leftist Web Democratic sense of the questions, and we're going to weed that part out."In the aftermath of the debate, viewer responses haven't been too kind. In a post this morning on The Caucus (at NYT), Amanda Huber who describes herself as a "Democrat who often votes Republican" said:
I missed the first hour of debate, and so I watched the analysis afterward to hear some of what I missed. What I heard was that there were no questions about education, health care, Iran or energy! What? The Democrats talked at length about several of these subjects. What is CNN doing?
Are the Democrats getting the meaty, hardball questions that the candidates can use to really define themselves, and the Republicans get a bunch of nonsense questions that they will essentially all agree on?
And "Hank" responded to the above-mentioned collection of viewers' impressions, offering a somewhat more exasperated take:
Anderson Cooper was better than Wolf Blitzer but the questions and questioners CNN chose to show were cartoonish, silly and stereotyped. A guy with the Confederate flag in his bedroom? Come on! A guy brandishing a rifle and making a mock threat asking about gun control? Give me a break! An arrogant question about the bible? Oy! If these people truly represent the base of the Republican Party then they are in even worse trouble than anyone thought. Why not choose questioners who are normal, serious and thoughtful and who represent most of America, not the goofballs who populate YouTube and the internet.Janis Hotham via the Huffington Post had a few good insights yesterday before the debate aired:
With 5000 questions and only 40 being picked to air during the debate, are we getting a fair representation of what people really want to ask? A quick scroll of YouTube's feature site for the upcoming debate shows mostly males sitting in front of their computers with questions about the national debt, social security, and what the role of government should be in the years to come. Bohrman said so-called "lobbying questions" about gay marriage and abortion won't be considered, despite the bickering between candidates about their nuanced and past positions on those issues. What does that leave?In theory, and to some extent in practice, the sheer number of videos submitted is a positive; people want to be involved, want to raise awareness for the issues they find important. To easily produce and upload for free a video message to the next potential president (and have it be answered on national TV, no less) is appealing, exciting. For me, personally, the jury is still out. At the end of the day, the 'average Joe' image that these debates try to promote is misleading. You can access all of the used videos from both debates on the YouTube YouChoose '08 website, but where is the breakdown for all of the videos submitted? Of the more than 99% of videos that we aren't seeing, what are the issues that are coming up most? What are 'the people' talking about, concerned about? What aren't we seeing and why not?
It will be interesting to see if this debate that marries classic questions with more new media, and whether that will stay true to CNN's vision of a "serious" Republican debate. Of course, it's much easier to craft that kind of debate when you have 5000 nearly identical questions at your hands.