Hugh Hewitt and Patrick Ruffini are having a friendly dustup over whether GOP presidential candidates should skip a CNN-moderated “YouTube” debate of the type just finished by the Democratic candidates. Mr. Hewitt says no, it’s a circus, while Mr. Ruffini says, yes, the GOP is behind on technology and can’t be seen ducking CNN after lambasting the Democrats for ducking Fox. (Posts in order are here, here, here, and here.)
Mr. Hewitt is missing a great opportunity. The YouTube debate must have been the least innovative innovation ever seen in broadcast media. Audience and callers have always generated questions for political candidates and other guests, often quasi-anonymously, and producers and editors have always censored and tailored the resulting material. The only new aspect was the self-recorded videos, which isn’t revolutionary. We’ve all seen clips on YouTube before.
Mr. Hewitt is right that a CNN-managed debate would be even more inane and tilted than usual, and the GOP would be wise to evade it. Mr. Ruffini is right that, nevertheless, the GOP needs to reach out to technology-savvy voters.
But running grass-roots questions through the mainstream media grinder utterly misses the truly subversive and revolutionary capability of YouTube, which is to take the medium of video, with its immediacy and clarity, entirely out of the hands of the media. That is the power of YouTube, and the candidates will demonstrate a lot more savvy by taking advantage of it, as Mr. Ruffini suggested – a YouTube debate, but without CNN.
The Republican National Committee should set up a YouTube channel and invite questions from all comers as before. It should rent a studio, hire a skilled moderator (not a journalist), and film the debate before a live audience. Find a network that will air the whole thing unedited, if possible, but also release the entire debate, question by question, on YouTube. If necessary, take out national advertising to drive traffic.
How can the questions be selected to avoid cherry-picking? Almost anything would be better than letting CNN producers do it. Pick them by lottery. Set up a Digg site and let the audience vote. Let the candidates pick questions for their opponents. Let the candidates pick 2 or 3 questions for themselves. Have a panel of well-regarded bloggers pick. Have the first 50 people in the New York phone book pick.
The GOP has a good opportunity here to demonstrate its grasp of the possibilities of new media. At the same time, by raising the quality of the moderation and questions, the leading candidates would have the chance to communicate the quality of their ideas.
MORE: Jeff Jarvis, overestimating CNN, thought the Democratic debate was a historic opportunity. He rounds up some reactions here, and says ABC will do a better job.