Friday, July 27, 2007

Why the CNN YouTube Debate Failed America...

Elitism is alive and well in the United States. Earlier this week, Democratic candidates running for president all gathered for a YouTube debate. Different than typical presidential debates, this one was touted as pioneering and unique, or as the New York Times called it, "the first so-called 'user-generated' video debate for a presidential campaign".

What a crock! After watching the debate, I was stunned at how anyone could possibly consider this a more democratized forum than the standard debating format. Sure, ordinary people were asking the questions, but it was CNN, YouTube, and god-only-knows-who-else who chose which questions would actually be televised. I'm not naive enough to think that questions should just be selected at random - surely, there are some serious crazies out there and some type of filter is necessary - however, this YouTube debate did a serious disservice to America by touting itself as more democratic. Make no mistake, a small handful of media elites still controlled everything that was asked.

Now according to this NY Times piece, Republican candidates are shying away from the same YouTube format for their debate in September. They're citing the silliness of questions from certain people which CNN televised this week - "the Snowman" and "Crazy Gun Guy" among them - but in reality, those questions, which, to put it mildly, strain credibility, are the more the result of CNN's poor decision-making selections, than they are a statement against user-generated content.

Almost every review has observed that most questions presented during the debate were standard material that candidates have been answering on the campaign trail for months about the same subset of issues which the mainstream media has deemed most politically relevant - gay marriage, health care, Iraq, etc. However, the YouTube debate failed America by not opening the debate to questions which were submitted by people on less-covered issues like net neutrality, the space program, or funding science and the arts.

If CNN wanted to truly create a "user-generated" debate format, two ideas immediately come to mind. First, make people's video submissions public. This will add badly needed transparency and accountability to the question selection process. Second, make the questions actually presented to the candidates be the result of which videos people voted on as the most relevant and wanted to be asked. This would take the question selection process out of the hands of the media elite and into those of the American people.

This week's debate can best be described as ordinary people asking the questions that the media wanted answered. Creating a transparent, voting-based system would enable ordinary people to ask the questions that ordinary people decide for themselves they want answered. And that is how democracy will be best served.


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