A Timeless Debate Format? Or a Dated One?
Updated 5:08 p.m.
By Jose Antonio Vargas
One thing is clear after last night's duel at Belmont University: Televised presidential debates are stuck in the 20th century.
A record amount of money has been raised online. Many of the most-viewed clips on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Hulu, to name just two, are politics-oriented. (Sen. Barack Obama's 37-minute speech on race has been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube alone.) Voters following this campaign online are so anxious about Nov. 4 -- and so hungry for any semblance of interaction with the man who would govern them -- that at least 25,000 questions were submitted online for Tuesday night's showdown. Earlier reports put the number of submitted questions at six million; the must-click-on site TechPresident.com debunked that figure. Whatever the number, by the end of the evening, NBC News's Tom Brokaw, who played time-keeper as much as moderator, had selected only four questions from the online heap.
Judging by the ethos of the political Web -- where answers to complicated questions don't come in two-minute soundbites -- the second of three presidential debates offered more of the same, online political observers say.
The same face asking nearly predictable questions. The same canned, almost scripted responses from Sen. John McCain and Obama, who at times ignored Brokaw's questions. The same debate format.
Wholly different era.
Early in August, when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) teamed up with MySpace to bring the debates to our new media age,The Trail asked what role interactivity plays in these televised debates. "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 said at the time. Added MySpace's Lee Brenner: "One of the our goals is to not distract from the integrity of the debates while still being inclusive in the process."
But did voters learn more about the candidates after last night's debate?
Was the town hall format as inclusive as it could have been?
What was the difference in moderating style between Brokaw and Jim Lehrer -- and how will Bob Schieffer, who moderates the next debate, differ?
Is there any way for voters to be more fully engaged in the final presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15?
The primaries brought us a slew 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. Not all of them worked. Each offered lessons.
Together, they signaled an irreversible shift in campaigning to the kind of two-way communication that many voters have grown to expect. The CNN/YouTube debates, in particular, were thrilling to watch and participate in. They allowed a diverse set of everyday Americans from across the country -- not limited to voters seated in a town hall -- to ask a variety of questions in creative ways. Yes, it made for better television. But, more importantly, it brought the debate format into the 21st century, where it belongs.
"In an ideal new media world, we'd open up the debates in several ways, each taking advantage of the Web's economy of abundance," Micah Sifry, co-founder of the non-partisan TechPresident.com said, minutes after last night's debate. For one, Sifry said, candidates need more time to respond. "The whole notion that we should judge presidential candidates on how they answer in 90 seconds, or that major issues can be boiled down to 90 seconds, is ridiculous. TV time is scarce, but online there's no need for such arbitrary constraints."
Sifry went on to describe how debates could adapt to our changing media ecology.
"We'd involve the public directly, and in real time, in judging how well the candidates are answering the questions being asked, and we'd include that information in aggregate form. Showing a dial-test line from uncommitted voters in Ohio is just one step in that direction," he added, referring to CNN's innovation. "There's no reason why we can't invite everyone to express their responses, in real time, using everything from the Web to old fashioned dial-up phones. And that real-time feedback would be fed back into the debate loop, for the candidates to address. If millions of viewers think a candidate isn't really answering the question, maybe this way we'll get them to be more responsive."
Last year David Colarusso helped run TechPresident's 10Questions, a cross-partisan effort to get candidates to respond to voter questions online. After the CPD-MySpace partnership was announced in August, Colarusso launched CommunityCounts.us, which he said is an effort to bring substance to the debate process. Via video, voters can post and prioritize questions for McCain and Obama. Currently, there are 24 questions on the site.
"How we decide to use the Internet today is what we'll be left with tomorrow. If we can go from the YouTube debates ... to circa 1996 e-mail questions, it's safe to say we have squandered a great opportunity," said Colarusso. "Sure the Net has helped candidates raise money and mobilize voters, but is that all we want? What about moving the discussion from soundbites towards substance? And if we can't do it now, at a time when we are defining the Internet's role in politics, what makes us think we'll succeed in the future?"
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.
Posted at 10:18 AM ET on Oct 8, 2008
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