The Consensus On Last Night's Debate Format

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Despite doubts heading in, last night's Democratic presidential debate featuring questions drawn from You Tube users has been widely praised in all corners of the media. While some griped that the innovative questioning still produced the same carefully scripted answers, the event was hailed as a step forward for bringing the candidates in direct contact with the voters. The intimacy and authenticity of the format, as well as the sometimes striking bluntness of the questions themselves, were singled out as highlights of the debate. And although the candidates' responses might not have been particularly fresh, this new approach appears to be a move in the right direction.

I've pulled together excerpts from the most recent media coverage of last night's debate:

* Washington Post: "The debate, co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube, underscored the arrival of the Internet as a force in politics. The citizen-interrogators generated the most diverse set of questions in any of the presidential debates to date and challenged the candidates to break out of the rhetoric of their campaign speeches and to address sometimes uncomfortable issues, such as race, gender, religion and their own vulnerabilities."

* Los Angeles Times: "The two-hour session ... also included a few sparks, in particular over the war in Iraq. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect was the freewheeling format and the lively session it produced: something much more akin to a game show -- complete with commercial breaks -- than anything Lincoln or Douglas might have imagined."

* New York Times: "Yet while there was a new format for the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and the video-sharing Web site YouTube, the change went only so far: Candidates frequently lapsed into their talking points, and there was little actual debate among them."

* Chicago Tribune: "The format of Monday's Democratic presidential debate, with questions asked via online video, had all the potential to be an empty-headed stunt, politics scrambling for a perch on the YouTube bandwagon. But instead of being this campaign season's version of a candidate playing saxophone on a talk show, the few dozen amateur questions that co-sponsor CNN selected from among almost 3,000 posted to YouTube led to a relatively lively and informative two hours. The inaugural effort to harness the wide net of the Web to craft questions for would-be presidents offered further demonstration of the Internet's rapid ascension to a place of prominence in American politics."

* Boston Globe: "The debate -- a first-of-its-kind forum that had voters framing questions through the Internet video site YouTube -- featured often anguished questions and equally passionate responses from the candidates, who for the first time spent two hours together contending with the frustrations and worries of ordinary voters."

* Charleston Post and Courier: "The two-hour debate, aired live on CNN, was historic not only because it was the first ever held in Charleston but also because its questions were sent in via the video Web site, marking an unprecedented use of the Internet on the presidential debate stage."

* Tom Shales (Washington Post): "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 ...the major flaw looming over the two-hour telecast was that it wasn't a very good telecast."

* Media Notes (Washington Post): "What made last night's debate different, besides the disembodied nature of the video interrogators, was that they asked questions that journalists would not ask."

* The Caucus (New York Times): "But, then again, in some ways, we had seen it all before. Since the beginning of the year, the Democrats have taken part in numerous unofficial debates and forums and faced questions on many of the same issues."

* Alessandra Stanley (New York Times): "It is inevitable, perhaps, that the 2008 campaign would fall in behind popular culture -- or the culture of populism, in which viewers have the last word on the most talented singer on "American Idol" ... But that kind of surrender of authority is less of a virtue, or innovation, in politics, an arena where candidates already seem too responsive to public opinion polls and the more persistent bloggers. And the candidates proved just as practiced and polished when confronted by even the most eccentric or provocative videos."

* Brad Warthen (The State (SC)) "I like YouTube. I love YouTube. It can be fun. It can be useful. But unless it is applied much better than it was in this case, it cannot bring intelligence or coherence to a format that is far too fragmented and distracting already -- the free-for-all debate among anyone and everyone who says he or she wants the nomination."

* Politico: "As for the format itself, I thought the questions made for pretty good TV, but that the answers were standard-issue, perhaps slightly off-kilter toward the end. But it was the web coming to meet old-fashioned TV where it lives -- not vice versa."

* Talking Points Memo: "At some level I think CNN/Youtube still treated this as a novelty. I'd say 2/3 of the questions were pretty good ...The real problem is that there was no follow-up from the questioners, though Cooper did a decent job playing that role. But conventional debates almost never allow for real follow-up, even though the questioner is live and in person."

* Slate: "The whimsical videos were also not good: A talking snowman, two rednecks, and a heavy-metal ditty about No Child Left Behind were awful in that special embarrassing way usually reserved for parents who try too hard to show their children they're hip. But what the majority of the nearly 40 YouTube videos provided was authenticity, which is usually as hard to find in presidential debates as humility."

* Political Tracker (CNN): "The debate was often humorous and more often passionate. The questions were fearless and pointed, the answers sometimes blunt ... in the end the stars of the night may have been the people with the questions."

* Swampland (Time): "Well, I had doubts about it...but the youtube format was pretty good. The informality and the irreverence of questions was classicly American. The answer to Drudge's mocking headline "Is This Any Way to Elect A President?" is: Hell, yeah. It's a lot better than electing a President by having the Democratic candidate slimed via sleazy Republican leaks to your site, Matt."

* The Notion (The Nation): "After tonight's debate, I'd add that I believe not only in the decency [of the American people] but also in the creativity, caring, informed, sometimes zany sense of humor and street smarts of the people who sent in close to 3000 video-questions."

* The Swamp (Chicago Tribune): "Will we look back in months on the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate from South Carolina and see it as a turning point in the race? Doubtful. While the novel use of the YouTube video gave the debate some flavor it wouldn't have had if it had used the traditional journalistic panel pitching the questions, the debate was another encounter of the candidates that didn't scramble the Democratic race's dynamics."

* Comment Is Free (The Guardian): "Perhaps the main difference was that the pretence that the questions were coming "from the people" rather than selected by journalists allowed the events' stagers to ask questions that were even stupider than the usual ones."

* The Plank (The New Republic): "I'm going to join what seems like an insta-consensus that the YouTube format worked nicely. "Sure it was gimmicky and frivolous at times. But the unpredictable variety was far more appealing than the usual Brokaw-Blitzer-etc drone."

* Tapped (The American Prospect): "Although I found the questions and answers on marriage equality last night to be very interesting ... I thought all the time spent on it was sort of a waste ... So why is it that so many debates in the last couple elections, both in the primaries and the general have featured questions about this? My best answer is that it fits broadly into the characterological preference of the mainstream media."

* The Daily Dish (The Atlantic Monthly): "If you're sick of people like me on television, or worse, then the direct questions from regular voters and non-voters must have been a breath of extremely fresh air (there's another asthmatic metaphor). I was fearing it would be lame. It wasn't."

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