Did Web's Role Shape Debate, or Was It a Gimmick? In Monday's Democratic presidential candidate debate, YouTube users posted questions for the candidates and then responded to the candidates' answers. But did the videos have an impact on the tenor of the debate, or were they just a gimmick?
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Did Web's Role Shape Debate, or Was It a Gimmick?

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Did Web's Role Shape Debate, or Was It a Gimmick?

Did Web's Role Shape Debate, or Was It a Gimmick?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

So now, the debate about the debate. Last night, the Democratic presidential contenders answered questions on CNN submitted by the users of the YouTube Web site. Well today, we ask, was this a watershed moment for the Internet in politics or just a gimmick?

NPR's Robert Smith has spent the day finding out how the bloggers and YouTubers are reacting.

ROBERT SMITH: The CNN/YouTube debate turned out to be not quite as revolutionary as promised. The Democratic candidates still managed to dodge the questions.

(Soundbite of CNN/YouTube Debate)

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, let me say first that - on the question that was just asked to Senator Obama…

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Anchor, CNN News show "Anderson Cooper 360º"): We prefer you stay on the question…

Mr. EDWARDS: I'm going to stay on your question. I promise I'll answer that question. But the first thing I want to say…

SMITH: They still sniped at each other…

Mr. MIKE GRAVEL (Democratic Presidential Candidate): And I want to take on Barack Obama for a minute, who said he doesn't take money from lobbyists. Well, he has…

SMITH: And they rambled past their allotted times.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Presidential Candidate): … that can say we're going to eliminate all troops…

Mr. COOPER: Okay, time.

Sen. BIDEN: …unless you're going to eliminate every physical person who's an American in Iraq.

Mr. COOPER: Time.

Sen. BIDEN: Tell the truth for a change.

SMITH: But despite the usual answers, the unusual questions did add something new to the debate - unpredictability. You never knew if the next video would show someone, say, trotting out their assault rifle.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Man #1: This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views.

SMITH: Or rocking out on their guitar.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) My taxes put some kids through college I can't afford to send myself. Now, tell me, if you were elected president, what would you do to help? Also, I got a parking ticket last week. Could one of you all pardon me?

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: And listen to that. When was the last time a question at a debate got a bigger applause than the candidates? The videos featured a father who displayed the folded flags from three generations of his family who died in the military. Another video featured aid workers in Darfur.

Mr. MICAH SIFRY (Editor, TechPresident.com): It was great television.

SMITH: But Micah Sifry, the editor of the blog, TechPresident.com, says it wasn't compelling use of the Internet.

Mr. SIFRY: Beyond the notion that you could the lottery and have your question asked, this wasn't all that different from a traditional debate where they don't really debate, and as best as they can, they try and get their talking points out.

SMITH: CNN didn't provide much opportunity for people to follow-up on their questions or comment on how the candidates answered, but YouTube did. On the site afterward where you could how the questioners felt.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Woman: I'm still getting over my excitement obviously.

SMITH: Some were bitter that they didn't make the big show. This guy was wearing a wrestler's mask.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm a little ticked with CNN right now. You bet you.

SMITH: And many, many others lunged at the chance to become armchair political pundits.

Unidentified Man #4: Hillary, you did great. You're that friend that whenever you go out drinking or you're out too late, and you don't have a ride home, Hillary is the one you'd call to get you home. Obama, you're kind of like the smart guy, the really smart kid in the class that hasn't gotten his license yet. You're not ready. So maybe in a couple of years, we'll come back and hang out.

SMITH: After the debate, the candidates all said that they enjoyed the format. But none of them seemed truly comfortable during the debate, adopting a more casual YouTube tone or laughing along with the videos.

Micah Sifry from TechPresident.com also noticed the disconnect.

Mr. SIFRY: It's going to be a while before a politician really grows up as a natural in this kind of world. These guys are all trying to adapt to the world of the Internet. It's going to be our children who will show how one can really, not just be comfortable in this world, but master it.

SMITH: Next stop, the Internet will get its chance to take on the Republicans. YouTube is already soliciting videos for the next CNN debate in September. There's already more than a dozen video questions up in case the Republican candidates want to start practicing.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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