Democratic Debate to Feature Web Submissions

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In Monday night's Democratic presidential debate, which is jointly sponsored by YouTube and CNN, citizens were invited to submit video questions to the candidates on the YouTube Web site, and thousands responded.


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a look back on the Detroit riots; they started 40 years ago today.

COHEN: But first, the Web site YouTube is already an essential part of politics. Best known for videos of embarrassing gas and hilarious parodies, YouTube hopes to become a more serious player in the presidential campaign. Tonight CNN will air a debate for the Democratic presidential candidates with questions drawn from 3,000 videos submitted to YouTube.

NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH: So this is it, a chance to ask a presidential candidate anything, and predictably, most people blow it. A few decide it would be funny to have their pets ask the questions.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello. My name is Catsa(ph), and I have a question about the safety of cat food coming from China.

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

Unidentified Man #2: Hi. This is Lucy the Politicat from Berwyn, Illinois.

Unidentified Man #3: Hi. My name is Freddie. I live with my owner in Rockville, Maryland. Sometimes I feel like the candidates treat us like guinea pigs.

SMITH: Yeah, because you are a guinea pig. Other people pimp their kids out to do the dirty work.

Unidentified Child: Hi. My name is Adeline(ph). I'm 5 years old. Will Social Security be there for my generation?

Unidentified Woman #1: My name is Madeleine De Mayo(ph). I am only 4 months old.

SMITH: And my mom is already embarrassing me. Other adults do a fine job of embarrassing themselves. How about a man wearing an Elvis costume?

Unidentified Man #4: So just what in the blue suede shoes are our esteemed candidates going to do about making health care affordable for all Americans? Thank you very much.

SMITH: Or a John Darted(ph), who has no clothes at all.

Mr. JOHN DARTED(ph): Does this Web cam make my boobs look weird?

SMITH: The chance to show up on television was a magnet for freaks, conspiracy theorists and self-promoters.

Mr. MICHAEL MOORE (Filmmaker): Hi. This is Michael Moore. I have a question for all the candidates. Can you tell us which medications that you're on? And how much is it costing you?

SMITH: Actually, that's a pretty good question. And full disclosure, most of them are serious thoughtful questions. I had to wade through hundreds of videos to get to the embarrassing ones. The best come from people who are passionate about an issue that actually affects them

Ms. LORRI BENNEN(ph): Hello. I'm Lori Bennen from Oregon. And I'm standing here now in eastern Chad, home to some of many refugees from the conflicts in Darfur. My question to the candidates is, what would you do to end this ongoing crisis in Darfur, to end the suffering of these people and to prevent such atrocities in the future?

SMITH: And even the guy in a Mexican wrestler's mask has a serious question.

Unidentified Man #6: At your inauguration, will you, right then and there, sign an executive order beginning the withdrawal of troops for Iraq?

SMITH: The odds are good that most of the weirdness and charm of YouTube will not make it on the air tonight. The questions are being vetted and chosen by producers at CNN, making it the Internet equivalent of having audience members write their questions on index cards and then pass them up to the moderator. This decision to not let the users themselves vote on the best questions has led to an online backlash against the debate. Gimmick alert, screamed one blog.

Another commentator snarked that the stank of the mainstream media was all over the debate. The Web site Community Counts is actually allowing people to vote for their favorite YouTube question to put the pressure on CNN. Leading as of this morning is this one.

Unidentified Woman #2: Do you believe that this president should be impeached? And further, do you believe that this is a necessary action to prevent future presidents from abusing presidential powers? Thank you.

SMITH: The best innovation of the YouTube debate will probably not end up being the questions at all. Unlike a normal debate that ends after its allotted time, the folks at YouTube will post all the candidates answers for posterity and allow users to comment on whether or not they dodged the question. And even the videos that didn't get picked are living on as comedy. This guy calls himself the Mighty Thor.

MIGHTY THOR: How can you, or your government - I've messed that right up, didn't I? CNN will never use that.

SMITH: Oh, but we will.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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