Look Out St. Petersburg: A Look at CNN/YouTube Debate
Her face fills the picture; a tense, weary mask relieved only slightly by a splash of lipstick and a brightly-colored scarf around her neck.
Her question is simple: "I would like to ask the candidates what they have in plan for our health care system," she says, moving back the scarf to reveal a massive scar stretching from the base of her neck to mid-chest.
"...so someone at my age doesn't have to have a heart attack and triple bypass and this scar just because I could not get any doctor to order the tests that I needed."
Her name is Kristy Ivey. And the Spokane, Wash. resident's personal, passionate plea is a prime example of the kinds of questions pouring in for the Democratic presidential candidates as part of CNN's partnership with the video file sharing site YouTube on what they're calling "the first voter-generated presidential debates," according to anchor Anderson Cooper.
"I watch (the submissions) every day...I’ve watched hundreds of them a day," said Cooper, who is helping producers select about 30 questions from the more than 1,700 videotaped queries already uploaded to YouTube for the Democratic debate, scheduled 7 p.m. Monday in South Carolina. "What’s great about them is the variety of them – the way questions are asked. Some are extraordinarily simple—its just a person sitting in front of a computer and asking a question. Some are funny and some use historical footage. Clearly, for some, they are are questions that are life or death for them. There is something very compelling about that."
When CNN and YouTube announced they would hold two debates mostly featuring questions provided by average people through video clips submitted on the Web, more than a few critics wondered if it was a cyber-centered gimmick.
But CNN U.S. president Jon Klein insists the questions, which users can submit for the Democratic debate until Sunday, are unique and revealing. They also provide a potent preview of the queries expected for the Sept. 17 Republican debate, which the cable channel is expected to officially announce today will be held in St. Petersburg at the Mahaffey theater (even after we printed a story on the debate location Thursday, CNN officials refused to comment until after a 1 p.m. press conference today)
"They're very intimate questions...(with) an earnest quality that it will be interesting to see if the candidates can match," said Klein, relaxing in a lounge at the Beverly Hilton hotel after meeting with TV critics in Los Angeles. "Somebody's asking about health care because they've got a relative who has cancer and can't pay for it. That's a lot different than a professional journalist asking the intellectual question about policy."
Cooper admitted the format does a bit of his work for him, eliminating the need to research many of his own questions. Instead, he expects to serve as an onstage traffic cop and truth squad, making sure the politicians don't shrug off the questions presented.
"My job is to make sure the politicians honor the question by answering the question," Cooper said. "It’s important, because people put time into developing these questions and they deserve straight answers. We've all seen from user-generated content that’s exploded across the Internet...people are often smart and incredibly well spoken. And even if they’re not well spoken, they ask intelligent questions that should be honored with intelligent answers."
Even a competitor, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, said the CNN/YouTube partnership has attracted his attention. "I'm looking forward to seeing the debate," he said in a separate meeting with TV critics. "Look, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. These (online) outlets are out there, and our job now is to get on whatever screens people are watching however we can."
A spin through the myriad of questions already uploaded speaks volumes. One post features a montage of black and white photos of young people, interspersed with text describing them as uncaring, uninterested and unfeeling, asking finally how would the candidates connect with this generation.
Another post features a woman standing in a refugee camp in Chad, asking about the humanitarian crisis following the genocide in Darfur. There's even an unemployed truck driver doing a George Bush impersonation, asking why Hillary Clinton won't apologize for voting to give the president authority to wage war in Iraq.
"When I first talked to the YouTube guys, what I really sparked to was their commitment to doing something that was really about the issues," said Klein, noting CNN has aired a series this week exploring the issues raised by the questions. "They could care less who's ahead in the fundraising. They and the people in their (online) community just want to know what works, what doesn't and what these candidates are going to do about real problems. I think TV viewers are going to find that very refreshing."