Internet Offers Unlimited Time for Presidential Debates

    by Mark Glaser
    September 10, 2007

    i-718fcfeb7a19c26e6e2e463a84d45853-CNN debate photo.jpg
    One of the complaints most people have about televised politics and debates is the prevalence of the sound bite. There’s never enough time for candidates to discuss issues in-depth or argue their point for more than a minute. Instead, we are stuck with the tyranny of zingers and one-liners, perfectly fit for highlights on SportsCenter, uh, I mean the nightly newscast.

    When I asked MediaShift readers to consider how presidential debates should be run in the Internet Age (playing off a similar question in the New York Times), many of you mentioned that the Internet offers more time for consideration of questions, answers and even follow-ups and rebuttals. Law professor and Net politics guru Zephyr Teachout wrote in the Times:

    [The Internet] also allows…cross-linked blog posts, extensive research, simultaneous screens and raw debate footage that anyone can scan online, at any time. New media are not constrained by the scarcity of TV network time. Lincoln and Douglas criss-crossed Illinois 150 years ago, challenging and prodding each other in hours-long debates. Now that the networks are open, we can again demand strenuous, unscripted politics.

    Plus, presidential online video critic James Kotecki told me that forcing candidates to be in the same place at the same time brought in a lot of rules that led to too many prepared speeches and not enough give and take.


    “A true YouTube debate need not be at one point in time — candidates can respond to each other’s videos, and can go back and forth as much as they want,” Kotecki told me via email. “We got a glimpse of this when Joe Biden posted a video response to Rudy Giuliani’s YouChoose Spotlight video…These debates can involve the audience more than ever before. Not only can the audience easily submit questions with videos of their own, but they can also post their own videos disputing what the candidates say…Even if the audience doesn’t want to get involved in the debate, but just watch it, they will still have much greater control over the experience.”

    NGO organizer and blogger Rik Panganiban noted that E-Democracy.org had hosted an excellent online debate for the Minnesota Gubernatorial race for 10 days in October 2006.

    “Candidates posted YouTube videos of their basic platforms, and were able to critique each other’s positions,” Panganiban wrote. “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 10-day period. Just enough for people to formulate coherent responses, but not too long to lose public interest.”


    Blogger/journalist Mike Ho not only wants candidates to have more time to mull over their answers, he also wants to give moderators the power to cut off answers that evade the question.

    “Whether we like it or not, presidential elections are driven by sound bites,” Ho wrote. “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.”

    Giving Voters More Power

    One of the big kudos for the CNN/YouTube debate was that average, funky folks were able to cut through to ask candidates questions. However, those questions were still chosen by CNN staff and not by the public. Many of you wanted to give people the power to ask, the power to vote on who gets to ask, and the power to get follow-ups quickly on the air.

    Web developer and designer Jim Spice believes that video questions shouldn’t be chosen on the basis of what’s most entertaining or most popular:

    Sure, hits or page views may have been taken into consideration [at the YouTube debate], 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 [videos] that sum up the nature of those concerns, and feature the best? Showing three or four 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.

    That’s true, but a televised debate always seems to be pointed toward entertainment value or “gotchas,” whereas a web-based debate could offer more serious commentary and thoughtful answers.

    Beth Lawton at the Newspaper Association of America agreed with Spice’s idea of having people vote on questions, and also envisioned a way to get them involved with live follow-up questions as well:

    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.

    While I still believe that having candidates together in one room facing off live has value in presidential debates, I don’t see why we can’t try a mix of formats, including slower moving debates online that stretch over a number of days. The real problem might be that we’re not sure if the candidate is formulating responses or the words are coming from advisors or speech writers. The moment you take the debate out of a live setting, you lose a bit of authenticity and natural responses, and I wonder if unlimited space would invite more PR-driven answers.

    What do you think? Should presidential debates take place over longer periods of time online, with candidates giving taped responses to questions and the audience chiming in with questions and follow-ups via video? What other ideas do you have for presidential debates in the Internet Age? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: election politics tv video
    • Great topic.

      Since I’ve been involved with online candidate debates since 1994 via E-Democracy.Org, I have a few thoughts. I recently shared a detailed proposal for a Presidential E-Debate on my blog here: http://www.dowire.org/notes/?p=369

      Here is a clip …

      Can�t we do better than warming over the traditional too-many candidates on the stage pre-primary television debate? How about something more in-depth and deliberative that is built on the asynchronous strengths of the Internet?

      Yes we need �real� candidate participation, but might there be a format with video, text, and audio that engages millions of voters with candidates over the course of a week? Perhaps more importantly a debate that starts a real conversation among – that�s many to many – voters.

      On my blog I include a quick diagram for an asynchronous e-debate. My proposal made it to round two of the first Knight News Challenge, but wasn’t local. So the format ideas are for the taking if anyone has the resources to pull off something pre-primary or for the general election.

      Steven Clift

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