Whose Tube? Previous Debate's Strengths and Weaknesses

08/01/2007 11:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Everybody has been talking about the recent CNN Democratic debate among the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls. While the debate took a step toward making our democracy more accessible to the common people, the step was not a giant one. Let's briefly review what was different and the same about the debate.

It was different in a sense that many people got to ask the candidates their questions in their own words and voice. This was important because the process cut the moderator out of at least a certain portion of the process and allowed people to present their questions not just in a dry and off-the-paper way, but with their own set-up and in ways that truly captured the significance of the issues to them. An example was the lady who described herself as a hopeful "future breast cancer survivor" while removing her toupee, demonstrating the chemotherapies that she had to endure. Humor also found its way to the debate with the clip of the melting snowman who expressed concerns about the impact of global warming on the well-being of his adorable - um - snow-son. But many aspects of the debate remained the same.

Possibly the most important similarity between this debate and other ones was the fact that the candidates, for the most part, remained accessible to a select group of individuals. It is true that "everybody" could pose a question. But in this case, everybody is defined as someone who has access to a computer, high-speed internet and a video camera and is technologically knowledgeable enough to record a question and go through the necessary steps to upload that question onto the Youtube website. In addition, that individual had to have time for this - i.e. as opposed to perhaps working long hours at a factory somewhere or at a Wal-Mart - and also cable TV, because why would you pose a question if you can't listen to its answer? It is hard to obtain exact statistics on all of these criteria, but just to report on one, The Guardian reported last June that only about 60 million Americans have access to high-speed internet -- which is what you would need to upload the large video question form your computer onto the server in a reasonable amount of time. That is 20% of our population. Although that number is significantly larger than the number of people who would have had an equal chance of getting into a town hall meeting, it is still far from any meaningful percentage that can render a debate "accessible to anyone."

Another aspect that stayed the same was that CNN selected the questions. We thought the point of having people ask the question themselves was to address people's real concerns! People didn't ask questions in their own voice because they didn't like the moderator's voice! They asked new questions so they can be answered. And yet, some of the questions that were selected were the very same ones that Wolf Blitzer asked the same candidates at the previous debate, like "Do you support gay marriage?" CNN argues that it would have been impossible to create the infrastructure for people to vote on which questions they wanted answered. But surely CNN constantly create polls on everything under the sun on their website. While an online voting can be manipulated by individuals from one campaign, which may have people vote multiple times to try to get a question into a debate, many online utilities are now capable of allowing only one vote to be cast from each computer based on that computer's IP address. As a demonstration of this technology, just google "my ip address," click on the first link and see your physical location right now on a map. Scary.

Speaking of moderators, that was another huge weakness with the debate. Anderson Cooper took his regular pessimism of government and cynicism of politics on the stage, amateurishly ruling the stage with an iron fist. While he claimed to be keeping the candidates on track to answer the questions, he overdid that by not allowing them to do so within their own context. Most of the questions were policy-related and rather difficult, and to pretend that they all had a "yes" or a "no" answer is simple-minded. There is a difference between not answering a question and answering it after you present the context in which your answer is applicable. AC didn't recognize that distinction. Once Bill Maher said "American Presidents are like American Beer - bland, watered-down and marketed to us like we're morons." Now you can see why this is partially because of control media personalities like Anderson.

And finally, this debate was the same as all the other ones because the front-runners continued to get preferential treatment, which contributed to keeping them as front-runners. The top three candidates - Clinton, Obama and Edwards - were nicely placed at the center of the stage while the long-shot candidates like Kucinich and Gravel were put at the edges. In addition, the three top candidates got more speaking time on the stage than the other five combined - and they were interrupted less rudely by Anderson Cooper even when they went over the allotted time. While at times, those long-shot candidates wasted that little time they were given by complaining about the situation instead of presenting their views, that is no reason for CNN to decide who deserves more time to speak about their ideas. What kind of a democracy are we if we do not create a leveled battle ground for ideas to come out as equal and be judged based on their merits?

Some Republicans may use some of these points to excuse themselves from showing up at the next Youtube debate. So let me take preemptive action - as that is how they like actions taken - and highlight what I said in the beginning, which is while the debate was not as different as many argue it was, it was still one step closer to a more accessible democracy. So if Republicans don't show up to the debate because of "scheduling conflicts" -- i.e. there is something on their schedule that is more important than the American people -- then they should forget about their presidential campaigns and devote their full time to those other priorities.