Interactivity and the Presidential Debates
By Jose Antonio Vargas
What is the role of interactivity -- of letting everyday Americans in -- when it comes to presidential debates?
That was the question that struck us early this morning, when the Commission on Presidential Debates
(CPD) teamed up with MySpaceto launch MyDebates.org. The new site, set to go live in time for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, will feature tools that allow viewers to "interact" and "engage," in the the words of spokespeople for MySpace and CPD, with the debates.
Using an application that they can download and embed in their own sites or social networking pages, viewers can stream the debates live. Afterwards viewers can scan through the entire debates, which will be also be tracked by issues and can be shared, rated and commented on. As candidates answer questions, online viewers will be periodically polled during the debates, either by a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon -- "or something like that," MySpace officials said. On the second of three scheduled presidential debates, a town hall setting at Belmont University in Nashville on Oct. 7, viewers can e-mail questions, which, after strict vetting, may be used by the moderator.
To summarize: we can scan videos, we can rate what's being said, we can send questions.
"This partnership is consistent with our educational mission in using the Internet in a way that fully realizes the potential of the debates," CPD's Janet Brown told us. Added Lee Brenner of MySpace: "One of the our goals is to not distract from the integrity of the debates while still being inclusive in the process."
As it stands, however, the CPD-MySpace deal is not all that inclusive nor interactive, given our blogging, instant-messaging, YouTubing era. The primaries brought us a series of innovations in debates: the CNN/YouTube debates, the
MTV/MySpace instant-messaging forums, the HuffingtonPost/Yahoo/Slate mash-ups and TechPresident's 10Questions.com.. Inevitably, some of these formats worked better than others. Still, they all brought the viewer closer to the event because of the Internet. Together they amounted to an irreversible shift that permanently impacts how voters view candidates and the kind of two-way communication they expect from them.
The CNN/YouTube format was especially groundbreaking. Though the partnership was criticized in some quarters -- CNN producers, bloggers complained, filtered the thousands of YouTube videos uploaded -- it was still exciting to watch a diverse set of everyday Americans from across the country posting their questions. Not exactly standard fare in debates past. CPD's presidential debates are being moderated by a set of familiar faces: Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer. (Gwen Ifill is moderating the vice presidential debate.)
To be fair, let's give the CPD, a non-profit and non-partisan group now in its 21st year, its due. They partnered with MySpace. They're streaming the debate live -- a first. They tried. But given our new media culture, some argue it's not enough.
"I was surprised by what they've come up with," said CNN's David Bohrman, who orchestrated the YouTube debates. "The debate process really began to evolve this cycle, and they're ignoring it. They've taken for granted a lot of the innovation that's happened -- in approach, in style, in who's hosting them."
Micah Sifry of TechPresident, the hub of everything politics and Internet-related, is disappointed. In his ideal world, the debate format would be a hybrid of a live face-to-face debate and an ongoing online conversation where many more viewers can help filter questions and participate in the process. It's just not in the CPD's DNA, he says, to try new things.
"This is pathetic," Sifry said of today's CPD-MySpace announcement. "It's like saying, 'I just bought a synthesizer and all I can think to do with it is play Chopsticks.' I don't blame MySpace so much as I blame the Commission, for lack of imagination and courage."
A host of questions pop up.
If the CPD debates are not owned by a specific network, why is their partnership only with MySpace?
Couldn't the CPD gotten together representatives from MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Eventful, TechPresident, et al, and form an online consortium of sorts?
Is the CPD aware of YouTube's planto host a town hall forum in New Orleans that hopes to use technology to engage real citizens in a debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama? The plan is currently in limbo; neither candidates have signed up, and no network or cable channel is affiliated with it.
And the biggest question still, not just for CPD and MySpace but for all of us -- what is the role of interactivity in these upcoming debates?
This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj@washpost. com.
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