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An Embarrassing End to the YouTube Experiment

By Blake D. Dvorak

And so ends in embarrassing failure the great YouTube Debate Experiment of Election 2008. Which is not to say that it wasn't entertaining, in the same way that David Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks" sketch is a riot. But as far as revolutionizing the way presidential debates are conducted, taking a question from a Dick Cheney cartoon doesn't exactly measure up to the advent of television.

As a political medium, the YouTube technology is useful for pretty much two things anyway: 1.) Capturing candidates' more telling moments for endless replay to a universal audience; and 2.) giving candidates the ability to speak directly to voters, without the hassle of buying airtime. Those are two very significant developments, and because of them, we can correctly say that politics has entered a "YouTube Age."

But the idea behind the YouTube debates was the process in reverse. Voters would be able to speak directly to candidates using the YouTube player and this, it was suggested, would lead to some magical democratization of the political process. Of course, it doesn't look like anyone at CNN thought to ask if the process needed mass democratization.

With the fare presented ranging from the inventive to the ridiculous, the experiment was certainly a nice reminder for why the Founders cherished individual freedom but dreaded direct democracy. It's also always comical to see what a CNN executive imagines when he imagines a Republican voter. The choices of Rambo Jr. firing his assault rifle and the kid with a Confederate flag in his room spring immediately to mind -- and kudos to Mitt Romney for refusing to answer that kid. But, not having seen all 5,000 or so entries, perhaps what we got was the best CNN had to offer.

However, a network exec interested in ratings probably defines what the "best" is somewhat differently than does an undecided voter trying to figure out which candidate should be President of the United States. The exec, not entirely unaffected by a sense of civic responsibility, strikes a balance, and so for every question about sanctuary cities, we had to endure a guitar-strumming troubadour.

As mentioned, it was all very entertaining and, at its best, informative and memorable, as when Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney sparred over illegal immigration or John McCain tackled Ron Paul on foreign policy. But entertainment shouldn't be the desired goal here. We can imagine that most viewers, were they treated to the "entertainment" on the scale of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, would switch the channel.

More importantly, pause here and ask if we couldn't have gotten the best the YouTube debates gave us from any network moderator. At least with a moderator we would have been spared a partisan operative playing "gotcha" with the Republican candidates over "don't ask, don't tell." It's a perfectly legitimate question, just not when it comes from an undisclosed member of Hillary Clinton's gay and lesbian steering committee.

Of course, now we know that CNN's negligence didn't end with Ret. Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr. As several bloggers quickly discovered soon after the debate, one questioner, who asked about jailing women who received abortions, says on her Web site she backs John Edwards. And there was Mark Strauss wondering if Ron Paul would consider a third party run -- the same Strauss who, back in July at the Democratic YouTube debate, asked a question on health care.

Now, the issue here is not about whether Democratic partisans should be given airtime at a Republican primary debate, and vice versa. Maybe they should be. But if they are, then at least label them as such. When LeeAnn Anderson asks a question on Chinese toy products while cradling her two children, what viewers see is a concerned mother looking for the best candidate to protect her family. But as Michelle Malkin found (and one imagines with not a great deal of effort), Anderson works for the American Steel Workers Union, which has endorsed Edwards.

And so the revolutionary facade of the great YouTube Experiment has fallen in spectacular fashion: Many of these questioners weren't the ordinary Americans as advertised by CNN at all. Many in fact were activists, partisans and ideologues, who unsurprisingly gamed CNN, when they weren't making total fools of themselves. But why blame them? Any one with any experience at all with the Internet and political blogs could have guessed this was coming.

So, by all means blame CNN for this embarrassment, but be sure to focus the blame on the decision to hold this circus in the first place. Presented with an exciting new medium, the network brain trust bought the notion that it could be part of a "people-powered" revolution in presidential politics. And now that the "people" have spoken and CNN is left with what came out, Adams, Madison and the rest of the gang are somewhere smiling smugly. In the end, all CNN did was put on two amusing two-hour commercials for YouTube, subsidiary of Google Inc.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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