How would you update the presidential debates for the Internet Age?

    by Mark Glaser
    August 21, 2007

    The New York Times Op-Ed page recently asked a few experts to answer this question: If the CNN/YouTube presidential debates still had too much scripting and canned answers, how can we create a real new-media debate? Various folks answered, with Kevin Kelly saying candidates should have webcams attached to their heads 24/7, and Tom Brokaw joked that candidates should answer questions completely through cell phones. Yahoo and Huffington Post also have plans for an online-only debate with candidates in different locations. I’m wondering what you think would be the right way to update the debates for the Internet Age — something innovative, inclusive of the audience, but that doesn’t take away from the live interactive nature of storied debates. Share your thoughts in the comments below and I’ll run the best ideas in the next Your Take Roundup.

    Tagged: comments election newspapers politics video
    • jordon

      I think the media are missing the point of the YouTube debates. It wasn’t about the technological innovation of submitting video questions over the Internets, it was about the civic innovation of allowing average people ask questions with as little mediation as possible. Thus, it’s very easy for distinguished insiders like Tom Brokaw to condescend and miss the point, but we aren’t concerned with him. Radically, we want a direct line to our candidates.

      That said, the one way to improve debates is to allow candidates to have more time to think over a question and answer them at a later time. Most of the time, when a person asks a real stumper, the candidate avoids the question and recycles some talking point, which we forgive because he’s being asked to provide a substantive answer on the spot, which is very difficult to do. I think John Edwards and Mike Gravel have done something similar to my suggestion, whereby they solicit video questions on You Tube and then respond to them in due course.

      Second, I would break up the debates into two separate camps, with participants in each debate drawn at random, so we don’t have to cram so many talking points into one debate.

    • jhm

      We could update these events either by refusing to call them debates or reintroducing some of the characteristics of actual debates.

    • I think that the gubernatorial debates in Minnesota in 2006 was a great example of how to conduct an online dialogue among candidates in an election.

      Candidates posted youtube videos of their basic platforms, and were able to critique each other’s positions. Citizens were encouraged to comment on the platforms via video responses, email and text responses. Candidates were then asked to lay out their positions on key issues facing Minnesota, and respond to each other’s positions. People could give feedback and pose their own questions.

      I like that it occurred over a ten-day period. Just enough for people to formulate coherent responses, but not too long to lose public interest.

    • Despite any squabbles that Jay Rosen and I had over at Assignment Zero, he left me with this important idea that’s very germane to these debates, and I paraphrase: It’s not about the zinger.

      Substantive policy questions are hard; there’s no question about that. We, the public, are entitled to answers. The candidates should be entitled to the time to consider them, as previous commenters have said. I would be fascinated by a debate in which:

      (a) The questions for each candidate were provided well in advance, allowing for reflection time and the development of a real answer; and

      (b) The moderator had the right to cut off a candidate who was obviously dodging the question and droning on with some canned talking point. The candidate would forfeit his/her time.

      The moderator would have tremendous responsibility here and would have to be someone objective and responsible so that the “gong” would be respected by both the candidates and the audience. The question that caused the interruption would be discarded and a different one posed when that candidate came up again.

      Whether we like it or not, presidential elections are driven by sound bites. Providing candidates with advance questions gives them a chance to produce TV-news-friendly responses that are consistent with their platforms. The penalty of “the gong” would ensure that the question either got answered or went on record as dodged.

      Maybe a pipe dream. Maybe too much power for the moderator. Just a starting point, really.

    • “Web 2.0” is a sort of politics in its own right; social bookmarking, for example, is a sort of interest aggregation, with marks representing votes.

      Unfortuneately, the YouTube debate didn’t really fit the style. Sure, “hits” or “pageviews” may have been taken into consideration, but these do not really measure the types of issues the populace finds important, it simply measures which videos it finds entertaining.

      Of the thousands of videos submitted, the vast majority probably fell into 5 to 10 general categories. Why not find those that sum up the nature of those concerns, and feature the best. Showing 3 or 4 “funny” ones saying the same thing does nothing to further the debate, and turns the whole thing into an entertainment venue rather than the serious matter it is.


    • One of the things missing from a lot of these “debates” are the ability for regular people to ask follow-up questions. Technologically it may be tricky, but I’d love to watch something similar to the YouTube debate on television and be able to send in a follow-up question to the candidates as the debate unfolds. This way, the debate would be a mix of prepared answers and off-the-cuff responses. More conversation, less individual Q&A.

      I agree with Jim that some questions were chosen for entertainment value more than anything else. I would have liked to see a voting system in place allowing viewers to choose the questions — one step further than just submitting them and having a team at CNN choose the final questions.

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