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CAMPAIGN 2008: ANALYSIS

Substance overcomes novelty

Steve Johnson

9:36 AM EDT, July 24, 2007

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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.

Part of the power of the event, held at The Citadel in South Carolina and telecast on CNN, was, of course, the novelty of it. It's an open question whether the next CNN-YouTube debate, among Republicans on Sept. 17, or any similar one that gets scheduled after that, will pack the same punch. You've seen one folk singer in his back yard complaining in verse about high taxes, you've seen 'em all.

Part of the success was due to the moderator, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Despite former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel's grumblings to the contrary, Cooper was nimble as a traffic cop.

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.

But while CNN's question choices weren't always the very sharpest -- there were dozens of better-worded questions from atheists than the one the news channel picked -- they didn't allow YouTube users to game the system, either. The network rightly ignored all the questions posed by children acting as adult mouthpieces, and it didn't seem, at first glance, to have selected any that were made by special-interest groups.

To be sure, CNN made mistakes. It plastered its logo so heavily on the debate stage and screen that you might have thought you were in a branding meeting.

Most egregiously, it hid too many of the videos from viewers. CNN never put the YouTube questions full-screen, instead showing only the in-auditorium screen that was playing the videos. The effect was to render much worse the amateur video quality that the network presumably feared. Viewers couldn't see what many of the questioners looked like and, in many cases, had to struggle to make out the text that so many of the videos employed.

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.

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From Anne Laird of Pennsylvania: "My name is Anne, and I work at a Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania. My question is, we here at Planned Parenthood support comprehensive sex education and I'd like to know if any of you as candidates have talked to your children about sex and used medically accurate and age-appropriate information?" From Gary Berry: "Dear presidential candidates, see those three flags over my shoulder? They covered the coffins of my grandfather, my father and my oldest son. Someday, mine will join them. I do not want to see my youngest sons join them. I have two questions. By what date after Jan. 21, 2009, will all U.S. troops be out of Iraq? And how many family members do you have serving in uniform?" "I'm Gabriel. I'm Tuen-Lin. And I'm Connie, from a refugee camp near Darfur. Before you answer this question, imagine yourself the parent of one of these children. What action do you commit to that will get these children back home to a safe Darfur and not letting it be yet another empty promise?" "Hey, there, my name's Jackie Broyles. And I'm Dunlap. We're from Red State Update. Murfreesboro, Tenn. This here question's for all you candidates. Mainstream media seems awfully interested in old Al Gore these days. Is he losing weight? What's it say in his book? Is he still worried about all the ice? They interpret all these as signs that he may or may not run. They really want to know if Al Gore's going to run again. Yes. Well, what we want to know is does that hurt y'all?s feelings?" "I'm Rev. Reggie Longcrier. I'm the pastor of Exodus Mission and Outreach Church in Hickory, N.C. Sen. Edwards said his opposition to gay marriage is influenced by his Southern Baptist background. Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the right to vote. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?" ----------

sajohnson@tribune.com