THE BLOG
07/24/2007 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Sport of Kings: How the Questioners Featured in Last Night's Debate Feel Now

Written by Jay Rosen. Reported by Jen C., David Cohn, Sarah Cove, Beverly Davis, River Curtis-Stanley, Neil Nagraj, Nikki Summer, and Denise Wheeler.

Jordan Williams was watching the debate with his mother and began jumping up and down when his video came on, and the candidates all turned their heads toward him. It asked how Obama or Clinton would reply to critics who charge that "one is not authentically black enough, or the other is not satisfactorily feminine." Williams felt the candidates basically blew him off.

"Much to my chagrin, I felt Senator Clinton just cut off the fact that she's a woman, instead of answering it." He felt Obama "made a nice little joke..." (that taxi drivers in New York City seem to know he was black) "but didn't answer it in the least." Overall? "I was pretty disappointed by both of them."

CNN, which had exclusive control over which questions got asked in last night's co-production with YouTube, had a Kucinich supporter ask Dennis Kucinich a Kucinich question. It asked another questioner to re-shoot his video to make it 27seconds long. YouTube flew ten top contributors to Charleston, but none knew if their questions would make it on air. Some did, most didn't. Meanwhile, others were watching at home hoping to see themselves and doubting it would ever happen. But then it did.

Using a team approach, OffTheBus caught up with as many questioners as we could after the debate. (Here's a full list of the questions, text and video links.)

We also asked Steve Grove, politics editor of YouTube, what his goals were. "To further our mission of connecting the candidates and the voters directly to each other, without middlemen," he said. Well, they got part of the way. Anderson Cooper of CNN was very much in the middle. But that's not to say the "direct" thing didn't happen.

John Cantees, 19, who goes to Marshall University and studies broadcast journalism there (a nifty way to break in...) asked Mike Gravel if he truly believed the soldiers in Vietnam died in vain. Cantees had been an anchorman in high school for Cougar TV at Capitol High in Charleston, WV.

He said he had no idea CNN was going to use his clip, but had a feeling they would. "I watched a lot of the videos submitted and saw that none were by directed to Mike Gravel," he said. "So I thought they would use mine."

Cantees was just being shrewd by trying to get inside of the mind of the selectors. But if the whole point of the exercise was to hear from citizens, it just shows how hard it is to displace the spirit of professionalism with another spirit-- even when one is trying.

Yes, CNN let a Kucinich supporter toss Kucinich a "softball" question-- to use an on-the-bus term . No lightening struck the stage. Davis Fleetwood, a political videographer from Groton, MA, was one of those flown to Charleston by YouTube. But this didn't mean his question would be asked. It was to Dennis Kucinich: "How will America be better off with you as president?" Fleetwood said he is "heavily leaning towards Kucinich." His MySpace page shows a picture of him with the candidate.

"I've been doing news and politics based show on You Tube since April, so I thought it was a natural fit to do this," he told OffTheBus. "I actually submitted six questions, and even though this was my least favorite of them, I'm glad it was asked, as I'm trying hard to buy into the myth, or possibly create the myth, that regular citizens can have more of an exchange and impact on this election." He said he "literally had no idea they had selected my question and was totally stunned when it came up."

Now that he knows what works, Fleetwood said he would add a few touches. "I would have asked the same question but played the game more and done it with some clever graphics and catchy location to get the attention of CNN editors, like a lot of the other questioners did with their costumes and songs."

The transcript of the debate says:

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Mary.

QUESTION: And my name is Jen.

QUESTION: And we're from Brooklyn, New York.

If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married to each other?

Last night, Mary and Jen spoke to OffTheBus:

Q. Why did both of you decide to enter in the first place? Your question was very poignant and timely, so I would like to know what your hopes and intentions were in putting your question to the candidates, and your convictions behind the question?

A. Our hopes were to get a direct, non-double speak answer to our question. A yes or no to marriage equality. Not a no and then a yes to civil unions, to domestic partnership, etc. We decided to enter because we are avid video bloggers and believe online video is a great tool for democracy, for people sharing their own stories in their own voices.

They had been spotted before the big night. "We did appear on Paula Zahn Now last Thursday night to discuss our question but were never told that it would actually be included in the debate. Since we heard nothing, we assumed it wouldn't be and were thrilled when we saw it play tonight."

They were not thrilled with the answers but Mary and Jen are good at video and at political realism. They liked Kucinich, who had a "yes, you may marry" answer. Edwards, they said

seemed to speak from the heart, to say he was struggling with it. We'd prefer to hear that than a no to marriage but yes to all the rights of marriage but don't call it marriage. We're all tax paying adults. Why must we live in a fantasy land where we allow equal rights but have to change [the[ language of those rights to make all Americans "comfortable" with it?

Outrage coexists with realism. "They know what the right thing to do is on this issue but they have to appeal to a lot of people about a lot of things and like Richardson said, he will do what he's able to do"

CNN didn't just "pick the questions." They identified contributors and in some cases worked with them to shape the video. Mark Strauss from Davenport, Iowa, asked what the candidates intend to do about healthcare for the elderly. He told OffTheBus that "CNN called him and requested that he re-shoot the question and keep it to twenty-seven seconds."

YouTube, according to Steve Grove, had nothing to do with this part of the debate. I asked him why they decided to cede editorial control to CNN. "In this debate YouTube did what it did best, which is gather video from all over the world, and CNN did what it does best, which is produce a live television debate." He said it was a good marriage.

It also preserves a dictum from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google: we are not an editorial company!

Steven Peterson, a NewAssignment.Net and YouTube contributor, was flown to South Carolina by Google and YouTube under the guise that his video had potential. He was contacted last week "because they were trying to find people with questions that had a good chance of getting past the CNN filters," he said.

Peterson and nine others got press passes and a stay at the hotel with the other big attendees. He said before the debate different CNN producers approached the sponsored group offering potential interviews the next morning if their question got asked.

"YouTube is all about the user community," Grove said. "We felt it was important to have people from that community there." So they brought ten of them down. "The fact that you could be anywhere in the world and ask a question of the candidates is actually more powerful."

Stephanie Mackley, 28, a Berkley based documentary filmmaker and producer of web videos for non-profits, asked about reducing energy consumption. (From her bathroom where there is fluorescent light.) "I was inspired by the concept of democratically submitted questions and thought it would be refreshing to hear real people ask real questions." Mackley said she would do it again. "Because it made me think more about what I really want to know, which I had never considered because I didn't think it was an option."

For her it's about showing up in a political space where we expect to see men. "There was only one woman at the roundtable at CNN last night," Mackley said. More women should "step into the You Tube political ring, because it is very male dominated at this point." (In a follow-up she's still in her bathroom, still excited., and she says Anderson did a great job. "Almost as refreshing as seeing myself.")

One of the most powerful pieces of video submitted to YouTube was about Alzheimer's disease. It was sent in by Mark Strauss, a middle-aged GE manufacturer's representative, who lives in an upscale neighborhood in Davenport, Iowa.

On the video, Mark and his older brother, Joel, are feeding their mother, who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's. And that is the tableau from which he asked the presidential candidates: what are they going to do now -- not 20 years from now -- to get ready for the influx of aging Baby Boomers in the health care system. Televisually, it's the opposite of wonkish.

Mark sent several video questions to YouTube. CNN contacted him about a re-shoot but never asked him if he was a supporter of any of the candidates, or if was planning on voting or caucusing for them come January.

Strauss says, "I'm not a Democrat or a Republican. I'm an American." He's not keen on any of the Democratic candidates at this point though he admits to liking Bill Richardson, "even if he doesn't have a chance." Beyond health care, he is concerned about "our trillion dollar debt financed by the Chinese." He once told former Governor Mitt Romney exactly that when Romney came to Strauss's door last October on a pre-presidential campaign door knocking expedition.

"After I told him that we needed a political solution to the Iraq War, including getting the UN involved and Romney told me the UN is a joke, I told him to get off my property."

And that's American politics for you. It is not a sport of kings.

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If you're interested in OffTheBus (or a contributor) see Jay Rosen's interview with blog columnist Frank Stennett of the Spokane, WA Spokesman-Review. The Hair Beat. The Politics of No Politics. And the Mystery Driver for OffTheBus. Q & A... To sign up with OffTheBus go here.