Should We Republicans, Young and Old, Pretty Much Confirm the Old Fogey Republican Stereotype for All Time By Torpedoing New Technology Experiments and Debates in Light of The Problems With This One?

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Nov 29, 2007 1:10 PM
Update: I'm razzing my friends with the title. Obviously, they are not opposed, necessarily, to future experiments, but the curmudgeonly tone of all this, "I told you this wasn't going to work!" business seems to me to be misplaced schadenfreude.

A: No, CNN's doing a fine job of torpedoing them itself. Buh-duh-ching!

I've gotten into the ol' New Media and politics discussion with a couple folks on the Right who had issues with the YouTube debate format-- some before the debate and some after. On the whole, I think the technology's new and you're gonna run into issues implementing it at first, but that the fault for debate screw-ups lay with CNN last night, not increased technology.

I've never bought into the idea that YouTube debates were a revolutionary format-- different but not revolutionary--mostly because moderators still pick the questions, and technology's transformative only to an extent. I'm not a tech triumphalist.

I've also never bought into the idea that YouTube debates debase politics, partly because they're already plenty debased, and partly because political YouTubers are-- to a great extent-- regular Americans who want to be engaged and get a chance to ask their own questions of a candidate that they wouldn't necessarily otherwise get. That's not debasement, that's democracy.

Here's what I wrote to the group I was speaking to:

Well, I hardly think the Republic was damaged in any lasting way, and to act as if it was is overwrought. In truth, the first 1/3 or first 1/2 of the debate (the part more people watch), started some pretty good in-depth debate on serious issues that conservatives care about. It was some of the most entertaining and informative I’ve seen from the crowd this year. The second half of the debate was where the gotcha questions and secret operatives showed up, which is either a happy coincidence or a CNN producer aware of the vetting issues hedging his bets by backloading the debate to make things look slightly better.

I’m with N.Z. It wasn’t YouTube that caused the problem; it was the picking of the questions and the lack of vetting. I thought Anderson Cooper was quite a bit too lax about that when I interviewed him on Monday (warning: apropos pimpage):
    AC: “Well, campaign operatives are people, too. We don’t investigate the background of people asking questions…that’s not our job. Last time around (in the Democrat CNN/YouTube debate), there were questions from Joe Biden’s campaign…and we had some fun with that (disclosing who they were posed by). Things like that are generally pretty obvious. In watching these videos after a while, you can kind of tell, who’s really serious about an issue and who’s just parroting a press release or a talking point.”
Yikes. When you’re doing user-generated questions, there’s always a possibility that motives will be suspect and operatives involved, but it’s incumbent upon news organizations to do the not-very-hard work of Googling people to prevent it. I’m not sure how you govern the whole thing. In large part, I think we have to rely on a good-faith effort by those conducting the debate to disclose pertinent information, but in the end, good questions are good questions and I don’t think it necessarily invalidates them that they’re asked by Edwards supporters or whomever as long as it’s disclosed. I thought there were quite a few last night and they came from the real folks in the first part of the debate. CNN fell down on the job in the second half.

But ultimately, I don’t think there was any good political way to decline to do the YouTube debate. I was talking to some of the YouTubers at the debate, and asking what they thought about the idea that we’re debasing the political process or that the talking snowman distracts from real issues, etc. She said:
“It’s up to the candidate to outshine the question. If he can’t outshine the snowman, maybe he shouldn’t be on stage.”
It’s true. If you turn the debate down, you look not as if you’re lifting up the level of debate in American politics. You look like you’re afraid to face down an animated snowman, and you cement an unhelpful image of Republicans as irretrievably unhip and the right-wing web as irretrievably mired in its inferiority. CNN’s gonna have question issues no matter what, it seems. Why avoid this debate and make our side look bad instead of letting CNN taking the flack, as it should?