Today MySpace and MTV announced the details of the presidential candidate forums they will hold this fall. Hosted on college campuses across the country, broadcast on MTV and streamed live on MySpace, the forums seek to foster "candid, unfiltered" discussions between young voters and the major Republican and Democratic candidates.
The blogosphere seems abuzz with optimism about the forums, the latest evidence that 2008 won't be your mother and father's election. "MTV and MySpace have hit up an interactive format with the potential to pioneer a whole new way of doing candidate debates/forums," writes Michael Connery , co-founder of Future Majority, a prominent blog with well-done reporting on progressive youth politics.
I'm trying to remain hopeful that the forums will "empower [young people] to connect with presidential candidates in a much more meaningful way," as MTV President Christina Norman promises. They do seem to have the potential to provide much more substantive and straightforward insights into the candidates' views than both the traditional debates, which Connery notes are "nothing but 60 second sound-byte marathons," and the CNN/YouTube debate, which felt like nothing more than a sound bite marathon with that dreamy Anderson Cooper rephrasing questions from viewers who had no chance to ask follow-ups. Candidates will be hit with questions submitted live via instant messaging, text messaging and e-mailing (would've been nice to see some Skype action and viewers will have the chance to rate candidates' responses in realtime through a continuous live poll.
These could be the ingredients for a new kind of truly democratic debate where candidates will refrain from going on talking-point tangents filled with nonspeak. But I'm still a bit skeptical that the MTV/MySpace debates will be able to succeed where the YouTube debate fell flat. No candidates really had their feet held to the fire in the YouTube debate because CNN editors chose what questions were used rather than, say, letting viewers vote on which question they'd like to see asked. How will the MySpace debates be any different if MTV editors are simply letting young people submit questions and then letting candidates have a go at the ones they want answered?
Despite my doubts, these new debates will give young people a chance to inject themselves into the national discussion leading up to the election. I wrote last week that campaigns must focus more on engaging young voters. Participating in these debates seems to be a step in the right direction. My only fear is that some student who's just dying to know whether Barack Obama wears boxers or briefs or if Ron Paul lights up ("Aren't libertarians just Republicans who smoke weed?") will make the entire millennial generation look bad.
These debates are clearly an idea whose time has come as the media has failed in its coverage of the race so far, focusing more on cleavage than policy and turning the election into a two-person contest months before the first vote will be cast. I just hope MTV and MySpace find a way to use the forums to generate a truly participatory debate, not just advertising revenues.