Anderson Cooper Sells the CNN/YouTube Debate
And when we talked on the afternoon before CNN's last Democratic debate in Las Vegas Nov. 15, what Cooper was selling was the notion that Wednesday's GOP debate in St. Petersburg featuring questions submitted by the public on YouTube was as user-friendly as it could be. In other words, CNN wasn't going to let the Internet community choose which questions the candidates would answer.
"There was criticism that all the questions should have been voted by people online, and I think all of us wish that would be possible," said Cooper, speaking by cellphone. "It’s frankly just technically not possible because you would have campaigns basically stacking the deck, trying to … I mean, you don’t have an online voting system which at this point can fairly judge that kind of thing. You would have campaigns completely stacking the deck to try to get the questions they want asked to their candidate. And we already saw attempts at that in terms of campaigns getting particular … trying to get people to ask particular questions. We kind of pointed that out and made fun of it a little bit in the debate the first time."
Cooper makes a valid point that naysayers of this debate have had a hard time refuting. David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief and executive in charge of organizing the cable newschannel's debates, has already said many times this debate's questions will focus on intra-party issues, as opposed to grilling them on a controversial stance which every candidate accepts, like,say, gay marriage.
So CNN is choosing the debate questions from some 4,000 submitted up to yesterday's deadline -- including some solicited and filmed by the St. Petersburg Times -- and Cooper promises to try and make them better-looking and just as odd as the Democrats' lineup back in July. I asked Coop a few questions about what we might see, and since the paper only ran a small slice of our conversation on the front page today, here's a longer, but still heavily edited version of our exchange:
Critics found other nits to pick about the Democratic debate, which featured a question on global warming delivered by a snowman, a question on gun laws from a man who referred to a firearm as “his baby” and a preponderance of questions for the top three candidates.
Still, as the cable newschannel prepares for the Republican version of their YouTube-fed debate Wednesday in St. Petersburg, CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman resisted the notions that presenting questions recorded by the public was more gimmick than genuine format change.
“It’s a totally different dynamic when the candidates know they’re going to be questioned by America,” said Bohrman, the CNN executive in charge of the debates, noting that the site has already received more than the 3,000 questions submitted for Democrats back in July. “My frustration with the debates so far, is that with so many candidates, it’s hard to get some depth. When you try to focus on specific points (you get accused) of being unfair.”
We caught up with Cooper as he was preparing to host this week’s debate, looking for a preview of what viewers might see when the GOP candidates face queries lobbed by the YouTube masses. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Cooper: I think we’re gonna have a lot more questions to choose from. I mean, we had some 3,000 at the final count last time. I think we’re already at the 3,000 mark and, you know, we saw a flood of questions coming in the last couple of days last time. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we got above 5,000 this time, which is fantastic. I mean, it’s great to get so many questions.
“It’s sort of a bottom-up process. We let the questions and the general tone and the quantity of questions on any given subject sort of determine how much time we spent on any given subject. So it really does come from the viewers. They really are the ones deciding which topics get the most focus. It’s not really a top-down process where we, you know, kind of say, we want this number of questions on Iraq and so let’s go and find them.
Deggans: And why do you think that you’re seeing more questions now? Are people a little more comfortable with submitting a video since they’ve seen the first debate?
Cooper: I think so. Once you actually see it and you see candidates actually answering questions from people, I think more people are motivated to get their questions in. I mean, we were getting questions immediately after the Democrats’ debate for the Republican debate. People feel like they have a chance of getting their question asked and they see how other people ask questions and it gives them ideas on how they want to ask them.
D: Who handled the format best last time, and do you have any sense of who might do well among the Republicans?
C: I don’t. I mean, I think there was a general nervousness among the candidates for the Democrats, and I think that probably still exists for the Republicans. It’s a new form and it’s … I think it was probably harder for the Democrats ‘cause they had nothing to base it on. They had no sense of what it was gonna be like. At least the Republicans have seen one of these debates already. I think it works best when people actually answer the questions, when they actually listen and actually answer what the people wanted to know. I think it doesn’t work when someone just uses the question as a jumping-off point to answer what they really wanted to be asked in the first place. I think that comes off looking bad.
D: The critical interpretations of this debate were all over the map. Some people seemed to really like it; other people seemed to be very critical. Did you read any criticism that you felt was on the mark?
C: Well, I mean, some people were critical of the snowman question which was sort of an odd criticism. I mean, you know, you could have had a question on global warming that started off with talking about CO2 levels and greenhouse gases and people’s eyes would have glazed over. I thought it was a clever, funny way to ask a serious question, and if some people thought that cheapened the debate, I mean, I think they need to have a little bit more of a sense of humor about things. Frankly, the political process has been plenty cheapened long before the snowman video was ever invented.
There was criticism that all the questions should have been voted by people online, and I think all of us wish that would be possible. It’s frankly just technically not possible, because you would have campaigns basically stacking the deck. You would have campaigns (voting themselves) to try to get the questions they want asked to their candidate. And we already saw attempts at that in terms of campaigns … trying to get people to ask particular questions. We kind of pointed that out and made fun of it a little bit in the debate the first time.”
D: Some said the format didn’t knock the candidates off their game enough; that viewers were getting some of the same answers that they would have gotten if you and Wolf Blitzer had come up with the questions yourself.
C: Yeah, I think knocking any of these people off their game is something which is a very difficult thing to do and which happens extremely rarely. If it does happen in a debate, it happens in little moments here or there. These people have made the same speeches and use the same sentences and been through so many town halls that there really are virtually no questions that they haven’t already been asked. The question is, how aggressively do you follow up and how aggressively are they directing questions or comments at each other. That’s one of the frustrating things about the way the process works.
D: Someone commenting on YouTube actually counted up every question and response in the first debate. According to their tally, Barak Obama and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton got almost twice as many questions and responses than the other candidates. Do you think there was too much emphasis on these three people?
C: I don’t think it’s unfair that Hillary Clinton gets more questions than Mike Gravel. I don’t think it’s unusual that the people who are the frontrunners and the most viable candidates are the ones that people tend to focus on more. If you focus too much on one candidate trying to get substantive answers and follow up with that candidate, then you’re criticized for not asking questions of enough candidates. So, you know, you do the best you can.
D: I tried to find out how many debates there have been, and there’s no definitive list, because there’s been so many. Are we having too many debates? Does it get to the point where you are hearing the same answers all the time?
C: Well, you are hearing the same things at times. The last debate was interesting because clearly the candidates are sharpening their attacks on each other and focusing on one another more. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens again. For those who are closely following this thing, these debates are interesting. You know, for a general audience who may not be as politically obsessed, maybe they’re not quite so compelling but … I think it’s interesting to see these candidates as much as possible. I mean, we want an informed electorate. We all want to make decisions based on, you know, what we see of these candidates and I’d rather see too much rather than too little.
D: When CNN first announced the YouTube debates, obviously you had one date picked out for St. Petersburg, and I think it was in September, and you had trouble getting the Republican candidates to commit to it. I know they said the problem was scheduling but I’m not sure that anybody really believes that.
C: Oh, you’re so cynical.
D: What do you think was really going on there and how did you guys convince the GOP to be part of this?
C: I honestly don’t know what was going on. I’m always wary when people say “scheduling.” I think there was some skittishness, both among Democrats and Republican candidates ahead of these debates. No one was really sure how it was gonna go, no one was really sure how the format would work and what kind of questions they would get, if they’d be completely off the wall.
But there were a number of criticisms raised online, particularly people saying, ‘You don’t want to be the candidate who rejects this new format. You don’t want to be out of step with where the country is going in terms of technology and accessibility and viewer-generated content.’ So I think once they thought about it and once they saw that this was a respectable, responsible debate just like any other, they all said they would come.
D: Were there any debate questions you regretted airing?
C: No, actually. I wish we would have been able to get in more. I think we had some 40 questions in the laptop. We opened up the debate with a guy from Washington, asking the candidates to speak honestly and actually answer the questions and he introduced me. And that was literally something we’d seen on the last day, and he just happened to end it with … ‘Okay, Anderson, take it away.’ And we said that’s how we gotta open this thing. So I think it’s great to have people from all different walks of life have the ability to ask questions to someone who will be the president, and to be able to do it from their living rooms or their bedrooms, and to ask it in the way that they truly speak. I think that’s important.
D: Some of the campaign stories we’ve seen recently have focused on how Barack Obama says the Pledge of Allegiance and Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. Why has so much press attention been focused on these trivial subjects?
C: Well, I think part of the problem is that, the campaign started so early and has been going on so long. At a certain point, you know, if you’ve addressed the issues, it gets to the point where you’re left talking about these small things. I just think there’s a lot of time. There’s a 24-hour of news to cover, and people need to talk about something. It’s one of the arguments for having these debates. It does keep people talking about the issues, (and) you can’t say that you didn’t have an opportunity to hear these candidates speak about them. A lot of it gets to just stripping away the artifice of this process and seeing little moments of realness. You do get a glimpse of what the real person is like.
D: What’s your advice to people who are trying to compose a question themselves? What should they do? What should they not do?
C: The bottom line is, under 30 seconds. That’s the most obvious. But I think the most important thing is to be you. Don’t ask a question as if you’re the secretary of state, or don’t posit a question like you’re a foreign minister from some country. Just ask it as you really, you know, as you feel it. I think the questions which really work are the ones which clearly come from the heart as well as from the head, and so just be yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not.