The YouTube Debate

After all the hype, coverage is sober, possibly boring

The arc of the YouTube debate phenomenon is a classic case of what the press does almost reflexively—help build something up (even if just implicitly) only to then tear it down, or at the very least undercut it.

After weeks of anticipatory coverage (it wasn’t all on CNN) that kicked around the titillating question, “Is the YouTube-CNN debate paradigm-changing, historic, etc.?” today’s mainstream coverage is more of a collective sigh, a caveat-laden maybe.

A survey of major newspapers and their political blogs shows that nearly everyone can agree on a couple of things: it was different, but not that different, from the anemic political “debates” we’ve been staging for at least the last thirty years. The news articles were mostly typical roundups, and everyone seemed to enjoy mentioning the debate’s cuter video moments, such as a melting snowman who asked about global warming. Among the papers’ political blogs, meanwhile, were some worthwhile reads, including some smart live-blogging of the event.

The headlines sort of capture the sobriety: USA Today opts for “Public presses Dems with video questions.” The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post sound a bit more optimistic with, “YouTube presidential debate blazes trail” and “Public Voice Adds Edge to Debate,” respectively, while The New York Times took care to land on a skeptical note, declaring “Novel Debate Format, but Same Old Candidates.”

The USAT debate story is a routine summation, with little emphasis on the format except to say that answers “were in many cases sharper and more confrontational than in the candidates’ first three debates.” The paper’s political blog was updated live during the event, but only with a rough transcript and no original commentary.

The L.A. Timestake on the debate stresses the novelty of the format a bit more than USAT, noting that “The unusual format drew the candidates out on matters rarely discussed at the presidential level.” Online, the paper’s bloggers weigh in with more pointed remarks on the candidates’ performances (Hillary was “consistently cool” but Richardson “flashed a reminder of his past bad habits”), and the criticism that CNN promoted the event with “increasing hyperbole” and despite the hype, the debate remained “a one-way conversation.”

The Post wastes some space declaring that the debate “underscores the arrival of the Internet as a force in politics,” adding that it was “different,” as the “citizen-interrogators” presented the “most diverse” set of questions for a presidential debate to date. The Post’s political blog, The Fix ignores any mush about the historic nature of the moment and gives a snappy wrap-up, pinning the piece on the theme of “experience versus change,” or Clinton’s stump speech versus Obama’s. Another Post blog, Channel ‘08, which is a partnership between the Post and (Blogger Jeff Jarvis’s effort to track the campaign as it unfolds on YouTube) calls the debate “a terribly wasted opportunity” and blames CNN for including too many candidates, too few issues, and allowing the same old talking points to dominate. “This should have been a debate held online: candidates answering questions directly without the need for CNN, Anderson Cooper, or their questions.”

Meanwhile, Tom Shales makes several interesting points in his TV blog, including that the “populist” spirit of YouTube is itself an illusion. “It could have been 30,000 [entries, instead of 3000] and still not been remotely representative—or even particularly helpful.” For further evidence, see today’s piece in the Post on the digital divide. Shales was annoyed that “Not every candidate was asked every question, so the format was inherently inequitable,” and criticized Cooper’s vigilant time-keeping, which led to a debate full of sound bites—“the kind of thing that has helped trivialize issues and discourage voter interest.”

The New York Times acknowledges that the debate was “unlike any that had come before,” but quickly points out that “Candidates frequently lapsed into their talking points, and there was little actual debate among them.” Katharine Q. Seelye live-blogged the debate with smart, off-the-cuff commentary. “The use of questions on video may have been groundbreaking, but the answers, while often passionate, were not,” she wrote, But it’s hard to know if the format elicited a new kind of response. Seelye writes approvingly, “The videos added such a personal element and an unpredictable element, and made the debate seem so broadly open to everyone in the country, that it seems unlikely that future debates will not include them.”

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Adrianne Jeffries is an intern at CJR.