Let's talk some real citizen media

Following growing gripes about this week's CNN-YouTube debate, Dan Kennedy has some good thoughts:

Following Wednesday night's CNN/YouTube debate, it was revealed that retired general Keith Kerr, a gay man who asked the candidates a pointed question about why they oppose letting openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, was a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton's. And that turned out to be only the most notable of what conservative blogger Michelle Malkin is calling Democratic "plants."

Well, of course, it was incredibly stupid of CNN to do such a poor job of vetting the 5,000 or so videos that were submitted by YouTube users. And it certainly didn't help that Kerr was allowed to hector the candidates from the audience. His question was perfectly legitimate, but his Clinton affiliation should have disqualified him. (And it's too bad that Anderson Cooper is getting tainted by this. I thought he did an exceptionally good job of keeping the proceedings moving along while remaining substantive.)

But why is CNN deciding which videos to use in the first place? As my former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein wrote after the first Democratic YouTube debate in July, CNN "pretty much created a TV show out of the free raw video materials, not entirely unlike an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos."

So let me repeat and expand on a suggestion I made back then: If CNN wants to harness the power of citizen media, then it should go all the way. Here's what I'd do:

  • Have people upload videos in six or eight subject categories — the war in Iraq, terrorism, taxes, immigration, the environment, whatever.
  • Subject those videos to light vetting to make sure none is tilted for or against a particular candidate, or is grotesquely offensive.
  • Let the YouTube community vote on the best video in each category. Those are the questions that will be asked.

Such a system wouldn't be perfect. One problem, of course, is that the candidates would get to see the questions ahead of time. But so what? We should be looking for thoughtful answers rather than making these debates a test as to who can spit out the best instantaneous soundbites.

There's also the possibility that the process would be hijacked in some way. But I think that's a risk worth taking. Besides, how would that be any worse than letting people associated with Hillary Clinton's and John Edwards' campaigns ask questions, as CNN did?

"Score this one for the people," says the Boston Globe in an editorial today. Well, no. This was CNN's show from start to finish. Let the people decide — then we can celebrate.

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