Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YouTube Debates -- Same Old Thing?

What is the difference between having a "real person" on an amateur video ask a candidate about Iraq, gay marriage, and health care, etc. rather than a journalist? To hear all the self-congratulation going on today, especially on CNN, a great deal. But it seemed to me we essentially got the same old questions to the same old candidates standing behind the same old podium stands giving the same old answers.

It hardly seemed like the rebirth of the old town hall meeting in which grass roots democracy flourished with citizens in the same room interacting in person with their leaders.. Note that only a tiny number of American citizens submitted entries, and they were screened by a panel, and a few were chosen to go on the air. In the end journalists chose the questions. By the time all this processing took place, a great deal of selectivity had diluted the spontaneous immediacy supposedly displayed here. This is hardly the pure democracy touted in all the hype.

Yes, it was different, but did it make a difference? Were great new insights displayed in the questions and the answers? Were hitherto unknown facets of character and personality brought to light so that we have a deeper understanding of who they are and what kind of leaders they might make? Not that I could tell to any appreciable degree. To think otherwise is to exalt format at the expense of content, to assume with Marshall McCluhan that "the medium is the message." To test my big yawn at the excitement at CNN, let us ask if this events changed anything. Did one candidate win large numbers to his/her cause? Were new issues addressed in a fresh way that produced greater understanding about who the candidates are and what they stand for and how they would govern? Show me the evidence.

The only value I could see was that possibly this novel approach to a debate got more people to participate and to listen in -- perhaps among the young. Maybe we will find out whether this occurred and whether any lasting results flow from it.

The main problem is that these debates should not be occurring this far in advance in any format. There are too many of them to get very far on any issue with any of them. No gimmick will resolve the difficulties of having a debate among eight people half a year before any actual voting takes place.

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