Hi, I'm Tom In Washington, And My Question Is for CNN . . .

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A cancer victim in New York pulled off her wig to reveal her stark bald head. An animated snowman in Minneapolis sang about global warming. A woman in Berkeley, Calif., posed her question about energy from the family bathroom. And a young boy in Sherman Oaks, Calif., said he was worried about the rights of atheists -- like himself.

Movingly, a man who stood before flags commemorating the deaths of his grandfather and father in the military said he didn't want his youngest son to join them by dying in Iraq.

It was hardly the dawn of a new age in democracy -- although it was hyped as at least that and more -- but last night's Democratic debate staged jointly by CNN and YouTube, the participatory video Web site, at least proved itself a novelty, especially considering how excessive the number of premature debates has been. As the media involved evolve, the program may be looked back upon as a brave beginning, if not a milestone.

Hyper-telegenic anchor Anderson Cooper told viewers that 3,000 people contributed videos they hoped would be used in last night's program, and while the number sounds impressive, in a country of 300 million, it could have been 30,000 and still not been remotely representative -- or even particularly helpful.

To participate, one had to be computer-fluent and sufficiently technologically equipped to tape and perhaps edit the message, then upload it to YouTube. CNN representatives went through all the contributions, Cooper said, and selected a couple dozen or so to be played on the air. Democratic candidates including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did their best to respond to the vox populi.

Not every candidate was asked every question, so the format was inherently inequitable. At one point Cooper said, "Our next question is for Senator [Joe] Biden," immediately followed by a video in which a man began, "Hello. This question is for all of the candidates."

Cooper was obsessed with the candidates' keeping answers brief, frequently interrupting them or cutting them off. This impulse, supposedly designed to curb long-windedness, leads to "debates" that are just collections of quotes and sound bites, like political commercials, and is precisely the kind of thing that has helped trivialize issues and discourage voter interest.

Anyone willing to sit down and watch a bunch of Democratic candidates talk about an election that is still more than a year away probably won't care if the candidates give long answers. Sometimes Cooper demanded only a "yes" or a "no," suggesting that our political discourse ought to be even more simplistic than it is.

But the major flaw looming over the two-hour telecast was that it wasn't a very good telecast. CNN put the videos up in a relatively tiny window within a giant onstage screen and, surprisingly, didn't give home viewers a better look at them than the candidates or the audience in the hall (at The Citadel, in South Carolina). The videos were so tiny within the TV frame that some could hardly be seen on a 70-inch TV screen; one can only imagine what visual gibberish they became on a 14- or even 21-inch set.

The daffy director often cut away from the videos to show candidates reacting to them, so that whatever work went into making the videos often was squandered. Although the debate was "sanctioned" by the Democratic Party, it was essentially a joint venture of CNN and YouTube. CNN should have fully used the capacities of television and given the home audience a better look at the darn videos.

One viewer made a parody of a famous Bob Dylan video in which the singer holds up a series of cards with words printed on them. On CNN, a viewer couldn't read all the words. It was a tactically nutty decision: Solicit videos from all over the country, make a big fuss about showing them on a special program, and then make it all but impossible to see them as their creators intended.

All the candidates' camps were invited to submit "YouTube-style" videos that were interspersed throughout the evening, but even these were hard to see. Most were just standard political commercials anyway, not "YouTube-style" videos.

The program was marred by other technical flubs, including audio troubles and bizarre camera shots. There was one close-up of John Edwards so tight you could practically count his pores. He does look good, admittedly, though something about his appearance suggests the presidential candidate played by Cliff Robertson in the old movie "The Best Man," written by Gore Vidal.

As for content, the debate -- which one YouTube contributor correctly referred to as "a conversation" rather than an actual debate -- offered little that was new but much that was worth hearing. It seemed brave of Dennis Kucinich -- admittedly not taken very seriously as a candidate -- to declare, loudly, "The Democrats have failed the American people" because they have yet to bring the Iraq war to a halt, despite winning a majority in Congress.

Mike Gravel, whose microphone cut out the first time he tried to speak, made a few remarks during the evening about how little attention he gets from the media. To a man from West Virginia whose video was directed to him, Gravel replied, "I like the question. I don't get very many of them."

Biden, also hobbled by minor microphone problems, was refreshingly blunt. The producers chose to end the telecast with a cutesy question from a man in Colorado who wanted each candidate to say one good thing and one bad thing about the candidate to his or her left. Biden: "I think this is a ridiculous exercise." Amen, right on, brother.

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