Debating the YouTube Debate

Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post has an interesting article on the upcoming YouTube-mediated Democratic debate scheduled for Monday (July 23). The debate invites YouTubers to submit questions for the candidates with CNN’s political team, including DC Bureau chief David Bohrman and debate moderator selecting from over 1,500 questions submitted thus far. While Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at UPenn compares the YouTube debate to the 1960 “Nixon-Kennedy” debate, Vargas is careful to avoid reading the debate as a utopian or watershed moment in mediated politics, citing a number of critics who point out that the debate itself isn’t structured according to the populist logic of YouTube, which tends to privilege videos that have been viewed the most often (i.e., the oft-cited “wisdom of crowds”).

To some extent, I’m inclined to agree with the critics of the format, if only because it’s somewhat difficult to see how this debate format is entirely new. After all, there have been “town hall” debates in the past where audience members are given the opportunity to address candidates directly, and like those debates, the YouTube version will be carefully structured by the moderator, in this case, Anderson Cooper. Plus, the questions themselves will be mediated by their broadcast on television, which is now the medium with which most of us associate political debate. In that light, I’m somewhat prepared to agree with my former colleague at Georgia Tech, Ian Bogost, in viewing the YouTube event as “overhyped” (I made a similar argument about CBS’s “Democracy in Fifteen Seconds Contest” a few months ago).

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the diversity of questions that the YouTubers are raising–about the crisis in Darfur, improving minority graduation rates, illegal immigration, and stem cell research. Some of the more compelling videos do take a very personal tone, taking advantage of YouTube’s rhetoric of direct address. Kim, a 36-year old housewife from Long Island, asks about affordable health care while removing her wig to underscore her ongoing battle with breast cancer (this health care question is all the more pertinent given Bush’s announced plan to veto the popular SCHIP program, which provides health care for poor children). Alexander Nicholson, who is fluent in Arabic and was discharged from the Army because of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, asks whether the candidates will change that policy, allowing the best-prepared people to serve, regardless of their sexuality.

Vargas also observes that a “surprisingly” small number of questions deal with the Iraq War, while a larger number deal with issues such as health care and education policies. But given that the Iraq dominates news coverage, I’m not sure that this is surprising. It’s also worth noting that many of the questions were submitted by students, possibly as a part of a course they were taking, which might explain their concerns with issues such as affordable, quality education. I’m still not convinced that this is a “watershed” moment in American media and politics, but as I write this entry, I have been finding myself increasingly intrigued by the potential of YouTube as a medium for allowing the participants to ground their political questions in their personal experiences.

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