YouTube Debates

The fate of citizen journalism

With the advent of the blogosphere and YouTube, citizen journalism is on the rise—and to some extent its future course (and fate) might be decided by the reviews of the CNN/YouTube/Google-sponsored Democratic and Republican presidential debates in July and September.

Last Wednesday, CNN and YouTube formally announced their anticipated debates, with the purpose of “enabling people to submit questions to candidates via videos sent through the YouTube online video community.” YouTube and CNN will first co-sponsor a debate (moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper) among the eight Democratic presidential candidates on July 23 in South Carolina, where candidates will be grilled by YouTubers.

Into the fray steps the Orlando Sentinel television critic Hal Boedeker, who asks the all-important question “Can YouTube help CNN redefine presidential debates?”

The onetime netroots superstar, now DNC Chairman, Howard Dean, may think so. He praised the collaborative debate effort, expressing enthusiasm for YouTube’s democratic (small d) concept: “We’re delighted that the first of the DNC-sanctioned debates will present voters with a truly innovative opportunity to engage directly with our outstanding Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party is committed to helping usher in a new era in American politics that recognizes campaigns require a two-way dialogue between voters and their candidates on the future of our country.”

Similarly, the Obama camp—and most other campaigns—have embraced YouTube’s significance, using its ’08 candidate spotlight pages to communicate with voters. Last week, the Obama campaign announced that YouTube will feature a video of Barack Obama on its You Choose ‘08 page, in which the senator will answer questions about how to improve the nation.

For all the traditional Q&A-format face time YouTube is offering candidates, there have been plenty of Web-based surprises over the past year or so. The most recent was “an amusing, risqué music video, featuring a nubile young woman breathlessly singing her love for Obama,” but there was also the pro-Obama reconstructed Apple “1984” campaign ad, which got some 3.5 million views, and former Senator George Allen’s Macaca moment—all proving (yet again) how little control campaigns have over what goes up on the Web.

John Boyanoski of Campaigns & Elections magazine juxtaposes the majority of YouTube’s content against (potentially) well-conceived debate questions: “Somewhere between the videos of Chinese teens lip synching chintzy pop songs and Paris Hilton jail spoofs, the world will get its first look at the questions to be asked of Democratic presidential candidates at the next debate.”

But in the slightly more serious venue of presidential debates, The New York Times’s Katherine Seelye forsees the “originality and spontaneity” of the video format: “Now imagine a kid in jeans and a T-shirt asking a question, less reverentially, more pointedly and using powerful visual images to underscore the point. Maybe he or she will ask about the war in Iraq—and show clips from a soldier’s funeral. Or a mushroom cloud. If global warming is the issue, the videographer might Photoshop himself or herself onto a melting glacier. The question might come in the form of a rap song or through spliced images of a candidate’s contradictory statements.”

Seeyle has a point: these videos, like political advertisements ( LBJ’s daisy ad and Dukakis’ tank come to mind), “have the potential to elicit emotional responses from the candidates and frame the election in new ways.”
As Angela Jennings summarized in yesterday’s New York Times, “In the anything-goes world of YouTube, the companies expect to see creative and maybe emotional clips that will stir the audience and perhaps the candidates.”

Huffington Post contributor Glynnis Macnicol notes that the CNN/YouTube debates are a powerful signal of how average citizens can have an impact the democratic process: “The CNN/YouTube debates are quickly looking to become the most-referred to example of how the ‘Person of the Year’ will soon be in charge of everything (and yes we mean ‘You’ and not Rupert Murdoch or Google).”

Macnicol returns to the fundamental question: “Will the YouTube/CNN debates actually prove to be all that historical or revolutionary (or even enfranchise that ever elusive 30-and-under demographic)?” And, will these debates legitimize (or discredit) budding citizen journalists? Either way, the format is destined to have a drastic impact—to further empower the blogosphere and citizen activism or to further distinguish “them” from the mainstream media-industrial complex.

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Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.