CNN-YouTube Coup

Like some of you, I suspect, I tuned in to that CNN/YouTube presidential debate the other night out of curiosity. I’ve certainly seen plenty of these over-hyped, sound-bite circuses that are top-heavy with too many candidates and too many pundits explaining too much of what we just saw and heard. And, imagine, there’s another 16 months to go before we actually sort all this out and elect one of these candidates president.

So, a lot of us doubtless wondered if the inclusion of cyberspace cadets would be an improvement. Indeed, was hipper better? Would platitudinous candidate-speak be lessened? Would all candidates have to answer the same question? And would Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich still be confined to the literal fringes of the eight-candidate lineup?

For the idealists, more democratization in the process was one obvious spin. Skeptics could focus on the blatant gimmickry and note the promotional coup for both CNN, where Anderson Cooper could earn his presidential-candidate moderator chops, and the gravitas-craving video-sharing website YouTube. And, yes, the querulous Gravel and the quixotic Kucinich did, indeed, bookend the proceedings.

The net result: less scripting and an unpredictable dynamic that included animation. And better television. Comfort-zone glibness couldn’t totally carry the day.

There were predictable inquiries – from a predictable, heterogeneous mix of questioners — about Iraq, health care, education, gay marriage, the environment and a military draft. On balance, and the loon with his assault weapon “baby” notwithstanding, the personal touch worked. Real people, impacted by really salient issues, wanting real-world responses. They even got a few.

To be sure, there were the quirky and sometimes inane questions surely chosen by CNN because this is prime-time TV and not a Lincoln-Douglas sequel. That said, it’s still hard to believe that if you only had a couple dozen videos to show, you would choose one about reparations for slavery. Only Dennis Kucinich and maybe the Uhurus of St. Petersburg think that has any merit. But that’s an agenda question, not a sophomoric one.

Examples of the latter were “my favorite teacher” and an assessment of the fellow candidate “to your left” as to what you “like” and “don’t like” about that person. Such piffle should be saved for “Miss America” — not a presidential-candidate crucible.

However, what CNN wanted was a show-biz mettle detector in front of a live audience that wasn’t told to rein in its partisan feelings. The “like-dislike” responses ranged from a sense of humor (John Edwards disparaging Hillary Clinton’s choice of frock color and Joe Biden noting approval of Dennis Kucinich’s winsome wife) to a sense of pique (“ridiculous exercise”) from Biden.

In the end, Clinton continued to help herself. She’s prepared, poised and hardly quip-challenged. Obama is good, but not Clinton good yet. Edwards, the populist class-action attorney, still has the $400 haircut/anti-poverty crusade dichotomy. And Biden remains the most passionate, the most candid and the most internationally insightful of the Democratic lot – for what that’s worth.

CNN said it was pleased that the format drew 2.6 million live viewers. It trumpeted a somewhat younger demographic – and intimated that perhaps it would translate into more YouTube-generation voters.

That’s debatable, however, unless those new viewers didn’t notice that there were still too many candidates; not all of them got to answer the same question; and none were held accountable by interactive follow-up questions. And self-serving bridges to rote talking points were still in evidence.

And, frankly, when it comes to “debates,” whatever the format, I still miss Howard K. Smith.

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