The CNN/YouTube Debates: Will The Revolution Be User-Submitted?

06/15/2007 02:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The CNN/YouTube debates are quickly looking to become the most-referred to example of how the "The Person of the Year" will soon be in charge of everything (and yes we mean "You" and not Rupert Murdoch or Google, despite evidence suggesting otherwise). But will the YouTube/CNN debates actually prove to be all that historical or revolutionary (or even enfranchise that ever elusive 30-and-under demographic)?

No one is doubting that YouTube has had, and is going to have, enormous ramifications on this election process, possibly in ways that we can not yet anticipate. However, the idea that YouTube-submitted video questions, while technically historical, is also going to be "like when the 'talkies' married the moving image with sound in the 1920s" (something which killed more than a few promising careers) is perhaps stretching the point.

Thus far, the beauty and the power of YouTube has been that it more or less exists (to the everlasting dismay of Sumner Redstone) beyond the reach of the powers that be. It's unfiltered! And it's that very unfiltered, truly democratic quality that gives it its strength and also, dare we say, respect. With this in mind, is it plausible to think that the YouTube-submitted questions which actually make it through the inevitable CNN filtering process and reach the candidates on July 23 will reflect this? It's doubtful.

Whether the questions come in video/music video/photo-shopped montage format (and this begs the further question, heretofore relegated to the social networking worlds of MySpace, and Second Life: Will non-Americans be allowed to submit questions? Will the French get some comeuppance for all those freedom-fries?), it's hard to imagine the actual substance of the questions being much different than the ones we've come to expect from the "town hall" scenario — questions that the candidates have long been prepped for. There's no left-field in this game. Does anyone really believe that just because Hillary is being asked via YouTube that she is going to come up with a direct answer to whether she's sorry she voted the way she did on the Iraq war? It seems unlikely. Even if it is asked in rap.

While CNN certainly deserves kudos for marching so determinedly into the new "You" world, it has also put itself in a tricky situation. CNN DC VP David Bohrman says that "CNN will be really managing the editorial decision making as to what clips we ultimately take with us to the Citadel as clips percolate through the system."

However, Katharine Q. Seelye at the NYT's points out that "if the videos shown are too bland, there could be a revolt on YouTube, where users are likely to post their videos anyway, whether they make it on the air or not."

An important and intriguing observation. It is not difficult to imagine that one of the (better, more entertaining) outcomes of this debate could be an entire channel of videos devoted to submissions that weren't allowed through CNN's filters; something similar to the SlamDance festival that runs alongside Sundance every year.

Seeyle goes on to suggest that candidates could submit their own videos. Certainly, the Democrats have not been slow to prove their prowess on YouTube grounds, though it is somewhat painful to imagine what hackery of 9/11 the Giuliani camp might produce if given the chance. Oh wait, we don't have to wait for that at all. And a Senator Gravel submission would be reason in itself to watch.

No doubt, the YouTube/CNN debate, whether in actuality or fall out, will prove entertaining, and if nothing else, provide some conversation-fodder for the long car ride ahead. Whether or not it is able to solve, or even broach the root problem of political debates -- many questions, very little substantive answers -- remains to be seen, because, if it did, that would truly be both revolutionary and historical.