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July 23 Debate Roundup: Winner is YouTube

Steve Johnson, the Internet Critic at the Chicago Tribune, is understandably enamored with the YouTube format for last night's debate (my guess is that young American voters in general found it captivating as well):

It was a bad night for news anchors and Washington bureau chiefs, the traditional interrogators of would-be holders of American high office.

The format of Monday's Democratic presidential debate, with questions asked via online video, had all the potential to be an empty-headed stunt, politics scrambling for a perch on the YouTube bandwagon.

But instead of being this campaign season's version of a candidate playing saxophone on a talk show, the few dozen amateur questions that co-sponsor CNN selected from among almost 3,000 posted to YouTube led to a relatively lively and informative two hours. The inaugural effort to harness the wide net of the Web to craft questions for would-be presidents offered further demonstration of the Internet's rapid ascension to a place of prominence in American politics.

Yes, there was a question posed by a snowman (about global warming), one asked by Internet comedians posing as rednecks (about whether all the attention paid to Al Gore hurts the announced candidates' feelings) and one posited in the form of a heavy-metal song (about No Child Left Behind, which, come to think of it, could be the name of a heavy-metal band).

But while this new format was at times unconventional, it made for vigorous conversation, which is probably a better hope than genuine debate among a field of eight, more than 15 months prior to Election Day. It never got silly, and it was occasionally surprising in ways some of the previous debates have not been.

A questioner from Michigan, shot in shadow, asked whether the candidates intended to take away his baby, and when he pulled the "baby" into frame, it appeared to be an assault rifle.

"If that's his baby, he needs help," said Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden.[...]

But the larger portion of the debate's success was due to it allowing ordinary Americans to reclaim their own anecdotes, taking them out of the massaging and sometimes transfiguring hands of the candidates. Questioners framed their stories in the way most meaningful to them, whether it was the bald woman hoping to be a breast-cancer survivor or the mother of a son deployed in Iraq wondering what the future holds.

In this regard, CNN deserves credit, too, for choosing questions more in the spirit of YouTube than of conventional campaign coverage. Many bloggers and other observers feared a "wonking down" of the proceedings when they learned that the debate questions would be picked not by the YouTube user community, but by CNN itself.[...]

Millions of Americans daily go to YouTube not for the cinematography but for the content. These questions had strong content, but CNN, imposing old-media standards, stole some of its power.

But, really, who needs CNN? People wanting to see the questions in full screen, paired up with the candidates' answers, will, of course, be able to go to YouTube for that.

Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!

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Editors: Lee Ward, Larkin, Paul S Hooson, and Steve Crickmore

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