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The Debates' New Face
YouTube Users Will Quiz the Candidates

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."

"First of all, I frankly don't think we get a deeper understanding of policy on YouTube than we do in the newspaper or TV," Bogost said.

David Colarusso, a high school physics teacher in Massachusetts, was so frustrated with the format that he started Community Counts, a site that lets users rate each submitted video by voting "ignore" or "answer." As of Wednesday night, a video asking for President Bush's impeachment topped the site.

CNN has heard the complaints.

"As much as I wish we could use the voting method of YouTube, I just don't think it's realistic," Bohrman said. If the number of views determined the videos asked at the debate, then candidates could study the most-viewed videos and game the system, Bohrman explained. Furthermore, the most-viewed video as of Monday afternoon, he pointed out, asks if Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cyborg.

"This is the first time that online video gets a seat on the table to help elect a president," Bohrman said, "and we don't want to let it fall on its face."

On debate night, a few questions will be directed to specific candidates; many will be directed to everyone. Cooper will guide the candidates.

"All of us -- CNN, YouTube, the candidates, the viewers -- don't know what's going to happen and how it will all play out." Cooper said. "And that's not such a bad thing."

Steve Grove, head of YouTube's news and politics section, thinks the nature of the questions will result in a very different kind of debate.

"These YouTube questions -- a lot of them, anyway -- are intimate, emotional, personal," he said. "That person is in his/her surrounding, and that person is bringing you into their world, their reality. That makes it a very powerful experience."

The videos that Grove was screening last week at YouTube's offices in San Bruno, Calif., a few miles south of San Francisco, were as different as the people who made them. The war in Iraq, to his surprise, is not a dominant question. Many more questions are about Darfur, education, immigration, the environment, health care and gay rights.

Some go for the simple, direct approach. A middle-aged Hispanic man stood in his office in San Francisco and relayed his question entirely in Spanish. A college sophomore in Tampa used her cellphone camera -- the result is a dark and grainy but nevertheless compelling video-- to ask the candidates about the crisis in Darfur.

Others were more creative. A 20-something from La Grande, Ore., who wants a hybrid car, drove his 1987 Chevy Celebrity to a parking lot and asked: "What will you do to make sure that alternative-fuel technology is affordable for everyone?"

Some were slightly over the top. Two teenagers from Springtown, Tex., performed a 30-second skit in the kitchen -- with an Ann Coulter book as a prop -- and asked about abstinence-only sex education. (They're clearly against it.) Others, like the one with the talking blue duck, were in it for the fun.

In the past week, nonprofit groups such as the Asia Society and the One Campaign have asked their members to upload questions on YouTube. GreatSchools.net, a parents' guide to K-12 education, has 32 videos so far on its YouTube channel. Bill Jackson, its founder, noted that in the first four presidential debates, there was only one question about education.

"This is our chance to get a question in," Jackson said.

In the back yard of his partner's house, Alexander Nicholson, who was discharged from the U.S. Army because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, asked: "As president, how would you all go about getting this law changed to ensure that the military can recruit and keep Americans with critically needed education and skills like myself even if they happen to be gay?"

"It took me about nine or 10 takes to get that recording done," said Nicholson, who speaks five languages, including Arabic. The 26-year-old is now pursuing a doctorate in political science at the University of South Carolina. "But, you know, I wanted to get the question right, just right."

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