What's Up?: Questions From the People, Sharp to Strange

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C., July 23 -- Reparations for slavery. Atheism. The definition of a liberal. The marriage of the old and the new gave birth to something rare in the Democratic presidential debate Monday night: surprisingly diverse questions from a diverse group of questioners.

In the first query of the night -- and possibly the first in a presidential debate to start with "What's up?" -- Zach Kempf of Provo, Utah, pointedly asked the candidates: "What's going to make you any more effectual, beyond all the platitudes and the stuff we're used to hearing? I mean, be honest with us. How are you going to be any different?"

A few minutes after CNN aired his video, Kempf, a 27-year-old student at Brigham Young University, said: "I've always thought politicians live in an insular world, where spin and sound bites rule, where the same questions and the same concerns get talked about. Now this is our turn."

By "our," Kempf meant YouTubers.

No one -- not CNN, not YouTube, not viewers at home -- knew exactly what to expect of the debate.

There were skeptics. This week's cover of the Charleston City Paper reads: "Somebody save us from a YouTube democracy." Some irate bloggers argued that the debate format was not as "revolutionary" and "democratic" as CNN, which sponsored the debate with YouTube, had tirelessly touted it in the past week.

CNN's political staff, after all, selected the 39 questions, which had been submitted to YouTube. YouTubers, used to popularizing videos by rating them, were left out of the selection process. Even the candidates weren't altogether satisfied with the format. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, for one, pledged that he would later answer the two highest-rated questions on Community Counts, a site created by David Colarusso, a high school physics teacher who initially found the format "frustrating."

By the end of the debate, Colarusso had changed his tune. "I have to say, it was an enjoyable debate, which is a pleasant surprise for a debate," he said. "I think CNN did a good job in picking questions that came from minority voices -- not just from ethnic minorities but from YouTube users with minority views."

And YouTubers with a sense of humor, theatrics -- and not a little eccentricity.

A snowman and his snow child wondered: "I've been growing concerned that global warming, the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country, is being neglected. As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?"

Jered Townsend of Clio, Mich., showing off his "baby" -- a gun -- was curious about the candidates' views on gun control. (Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), to loud applause, quipped: "If that is his baby, he needs help.") A particularly irreverent video about the media's fascination with Al Gore's possible presidential run came from Jackie and Dunlap of Murfreesboro, Tenn. The pair asked, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, "Well, what we want to know is, does that hurt y'all's feelings?"

Biden, who seemed to be on a roll, retorted: "I think the people of Tennessee just had their feelings hurt."

With YouTube, context is everything, and some of the more effective videos, Colarusso said, had a sense of place, of personality, of intimacy. A woman in her bathroom, where she uses compact fluorescent light bulbs, worried about energy consumption. A woman standing in a refugee camp near Sudan's Darfur region asked the candidates to imagine themselves as the parent of a refugee.

Sam Feist, CNN's political director, who helped winnow the nearly 3,000 submissions, had a suggestion for the Republicans, who will get their YouTube turn in September: "Remember that these are voters asking questions, not journalists. The questions are different. Your answers need to be different, too. You have to connect with voters."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company