Fun, wasn't it? Last week's CNN/YouTube debate created memorable moments: a snowman asking about global warming, a lesbian couple wondering where the Democratic candidates stood on gay marriage. But the common complaint afterward was that the best-dressed questions resulted mainly in the same old, well-rehearsed answers.
That's true, generally speaking. Even though the election is not until November next year, the major candidates have been rehearsed, coached and focus-grouped to sometimes bland perfection. How could they not be: What they say is instantly communicated to voters via television and now the Internet. A spontaneous response might not come out right, and if that happens, well, you're cooked. (Just ask Howard Dean.) In some ways, expensive campaigns with carefully staged media events have greatly reduced the chances that politicians will get beyond canned responses, despite the pleading of the very first YouTuber imploring candidates to give real answers to questions.
And yet the YouTube debate did achieve: It was more entertaining, if not more enlightening, than most recent debate fare, and it was more widely viewed by young people. Entertainment value counts for a lot, as nonsensical as that may be to some given the current political climate with its grave, urgent concerns.
There will be more YouTube-like debates, and three cheers for that. It allowed for more town-hall–like spontaneity (at least in terms of the candidates' style, if not substance). We do like the idea that real people are getting a chance to quiz the candidates, because, cleverly or not, YouTubers were able to create questions with a degree of subjectivity that journalists can't.
So when two Iowa brothers were first shown feeding a parent with Alzheimer's and then asking the candidates what they'll do about increasing research into that disease, it's the kind of question Brian Williams (or in this case, Anderson Cooper) really can't approach with heart-tugging impact.
There is, however, an ugly, inherent implication that the YouTube questioners are an improvement over so-called mainstream media reporters. We don't buy it. A great deal of the gleeful journalism-bashing is often mouthed, or blogged, by people who don't know much about newsgathering. Frankly, we're tired of it.
The country remains enmeshed in a divisive war that has killed and injured thousands of young men and women. The nation is building massive, overwhelming debt because of it. There's a lot to engage, and enrage, voters, and while we're grateful that the YouTube experiment brings real people closer to the process, it's not as if journalists wouldn't have asked similar questions and, unfortunately, gotten pretty much the same answers.
The real improvement to debates would be to let everybody—reporters or YouTubers—follow up their questions. The debates—any debates—are little more than events in which candidates recite a Reader's Digest version of campaign stump speeches. If politicians were pressed to go beyond platitudes, we might learn something. Between now and November '08, there's plenty of time to tinker with the format. By then, candidates will hopefully be forced to have more real answers.