Why the CNN-YouTube Debate Failed America (Again)...
Last night's CNN/YouTube presidential debate - this time featuring the Republican candidates - once again proved immensely disappointing. Just like in the first of these debates, rather than "democratizing the process", the question selection process was still tightly controlled by a small handful of media elites. This is an issue that's symbolic of the larger ideological debate which the Internet raises: Does information require professional gatekeepers who make decisions over content for us, or can the people make such decisions for themselves?
As written in this space months ago following the Democratic debate, "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 in need of being asked. This would take the question selection process out of the hands of the media elite and into those of the American people."
As this Wired article illustrates, more direct voter-candidate interaction is not only achievable, but increasingly what the public desires. Earlier this year, The Huffington Post teamed up with Yahoo and Slate magazine to allow netizens to pick preselected questions for the candidates, which were then posed by PBS talk show host Charlie Rose. Additionally, MTV and MySpace teamed up to enable the online community to submit questions by instant messenger and to vote in real time on the candidates' performance.
The most common criticism against systems that would allow people to vote on which questions get asked of candidates is that people tend to ask "irrelevant" and often ridiculous questions. This is true, but only to a limited extent. Surely, nobody believes the presidential debate should feature questions about UFOs and flying saucers, however it seems very possible to find a middle ground. For example, as Wired suggests, CNN could "involve the community in parsing questions and then promise to use half the questions picked by the community, with the other half picked by his political team."
In the end, the goal of incorporating the public more intricately into political debates is a good one, and efforts in support of that goal ought to be supported. For the media elites to simply write-off the average citizen's concerns as "irrelevant" and "ridiculous" is tremendously arrogant.
As we're all aware, the Internet empowers individuals with direct access to tremendous amounts of information, and to suggest that an elite class of journalists ought to decide for us what's in our own best interest is a pure power grab, plain and simple. When it comes to the question selection process for the presidential debates, to insist that the public cannot be entrusted with such an important responsibility begs the question whether these media elites believe we're incapable of handling other certain responsibilities as well...