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The Debates' New Face

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Not long ago Kim, a mother of two, walked into her bedroom, turned on her webcam and made a 30-second video. When the Democratic presidential candidates gather in Charleston, S.C., on Monday for their next debate, co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube, this may be one of the questions:

"Hi, my name is Kim. I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor from Long Island. . . . Like millions of Americans, I've gone for years without health insurance. . . . What would you, as president, do to make low-cost or free preventative medicine available for everybody in this country?"

So far more than 1,300 video questions have been uploaded onto YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, many of them as intimate as the one from Kim, who at one point removes a wig to reveal her bald head. CNN will sort through the submissions to select the two dozen or so that Democrats in Charleston will answer after watching them on a 25-by-18-foot screen.

No one quite knows how the debate will work -- some candidates don't even know how to prepare for it. But the fact that it is happening at all is a testament to the increasing role of online video in politics and the emergence of a 2 1/2 -year-old Web site better known for its irreverent, sometimes crude, content than as a factor in the 2008 campaign.

The signature moments of the campaign so far -- the moments when it crossed over from C-SPAN to popular culture -- have occurred on YouTube. There was John Edwards combing his hair to "I Feel Pretty," Bill and Hillary Clinton's spoof of "The Sopranos," BarelyPolitical.com's "I Got a Crush on Obama." Kathleen Hall Jamieson sees its co-sponsorship of the debates (the Republicans will get their turn Sept. 17) as a natural progression.

"It's the equivalent of the networks broadcasting the Kennedy and Nixon debate in 1960," said Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of "Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate." "It's a new move for a new medium."

But the marriage of the old and the new is not without tensions. For many who use it, YouTube is a digital democracy of sorts. A video gets more popular the more views it gets, simple as that. But while YouTube collects the video questions from its users -- who can submit them until Sunday -- CNN's political team, headed by David Bohrman, its Washington bureau chief, and Anderson Cooper, the debate's moderator, decides which videos will be used during the debate.

The arrangement was criticized on the blogosphere the moment CNN and YouTube announced their partnership last month.

"The problem with the format is it's not fully embracing the culture of how the Internet determines what's of value," said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigning. "Look at Wikipedia. The 'wisdom of the crowd,' as it's known, is not only a technological phenomenon, it's a cultural phenomenon."

Still, Rasiej considers the debate "a cultural milestone."

Others are not so charitable.

Ian Bogost, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, calls the debate "superficial" and "overly hyped."


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