how politicians should respond to youtube questions
Henry Jenkins has some interesting notes on the recent YouTube/CNN debates. If you’re American you know all about them, if not you might want a recap: for the first televised debates between the Democrats’ presidential candidates, CNN and YouTube collaborated and asked people to upload questions as videos to YouTube. They selected 39 questions from the 3000 or so contributions, and showed the videos to the debaters and of course the television viewers. A Republican debate done the same way was scheduled for September 19, but Romney and Guiliani have suggested they’ll boycott it – Romney by mocking the format (in particular, the snowman), and Guiliani simply saying he has “scheduling issues”. CNN has postponed the debates, and there are massive Republican campaigns to get the candidates to participate.
In his analysis, Henry Jenkins compares the format to the townhall debate format pioneered in 1992 and to the traditional television debate led by a celebrity journalist. In the latter, questions are assumed (implicitly claimed) to be objective. In the townhall debate, questions are connected to real people and their real experiences: a cancer patient asks about healthcare, for instance. Jenkins writes that Bill Clinton superbly mastered the required shift in the viewpoint of the politicians: you answer the questioned directly, because you’re speaking to a whole group of your voters and need to see them as people.
Jenkins doesn’t mention this, but another commentator (sorry, I can’t find the blogger who wrote this now) pointed out that Hillary Clinton is the only candidate this time round who actually took the time to notice the names of the questioners. In almost every response, she speaks directly to the questioners, uses their names, and then moves from specific answer to a more general answer about her policy. Here’s a question on universal healthcare, for instance, that Jenkins notes because of the way we’re drawn into the questioners’ homes, lives and concerns. Note, though, how Clinton is the only respondent to address the questioners directly. Her answer begins about a minute before the end, if you’re impatient – and at about 5:40 before the end, when they cut to the candidates watching the videos, you can see Clinton is the only one looking away from the video screen some of the time as she writes something – presumably, their names.
Scott and I watched the debate in our charming hotel room in a tiny village in the Rioja (note to CNN: if you don’t show YouTube videos in fullscreen there’s no way someone with a 14″ TV set can see what’s going on – not everyone has widescreen flatscreens yet!). The debate didn’t start until 1 am European time, so we fell asleep before it ended, but we can check out the other questions and answers in a very nicely formatted and easy-to-navigate page on YouTube that lists all the questions with their answers. I must say, I’m finding US politics far more interesting than I used to – I’m particularly fascinated by the ways campaigns are using the internet, but also, you know, it’s more immediate now that I have an American husband and a whole set of lovely in-laws who are very engaged in US politics.