I Was Wrong: CNN/YouTube Debate Rocked

I'll Gladly Eat Crow on This One

By Published on .

Friday evening, I wrote a post in this space saying that we shouldn't expect much out of the ordinary from the CNN/YouTube debate. And while I still don't think the event comes anywhere near being a historic moment equivalent to the first televised debate, between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, I definitely think it was a refreshing change of pace and by far the best of the Democratic debates of an early season.

A quick poll of Ad Age colleagues finds that those who watched it, liked it. As one put it, "It was an entertaining show. That can help draw more interest from younger people, and that's a good thing." (This colleague also pointed out a more practical aspect from a marketing point of view: "While it was billed as CNN and YouTube, it really was CNN's show; YouTube came across as almost just the technology provider rather than an equal partner. And Google got no credit.")

But on to the debate. Sure, there were some softball questions, but no more than in any regular debate. And, yes, the candidates still were too quick to do the old non-answer answer. In this exchange, a father who's lost a son in Iraq asked the candidates for a specific date for troop withdrawal and if they had any family members in the military. You'll note that most of the candidates didn't bother with the second part of that question.

And on the issue of being "black enough" or "woman enough," Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both answered with quick jokes before moving on to the typically vague talking points about race and gender issues.

But overall, the questions were not only interesting and pointed, but even when they were the sort a professional moderator would ask, they were unpolished enough to seem fresh and honest. Some will say it was little different than a town-hall style debate, but it was certainly more entertaining to watch a snowman ask about global warming than a slightly nervous guy standing up at a mic and reading from an index card. Some critics have lashed out at the snowman (or is it a snowwoman?), but I say a little humor -- real humor, not the lame focus-grouped jokes the candidates use -- is a refreshing change of pace from the usual debates. If we have to tell a few jokes to get people watching, so be it.

Call me crazy or naive, but I do think the candidates were less inclined to dodge questions from the YouTubers. And while it was still horribly old-fashioned for CNN to pick and choose the questions, there were still some surprises, namely the question from Rev. Reggie Longcrier, a Southern black minister who seemed to support gay marriage. Saying that most Americans agree it was wrong to use religion to justify slavery, segregation and to deny woment the right to vote, he wanted to know why John Edwards thought it was OK for a candidate to do so when it comes to gay marriage. It was a hard-hitting question and, because it came from an unlikely source, it was nearly impossible to skirt. Here's a tip for John Edwards: Next time you might want to apply the makeup to the back of your neck as well. The angry red splotching as you struggled with the answer wasn't, shall we say, presidential.

CNN also had the good sense to have the reverend in the audience to ask him if he thought Edwards had answered his question. And while I'm not a big fan of Anderson Cooper, he did a damn fine job with follow-up questions and trying to make the candidates stick to the point, rather than rambling off on tangents.

And kudos to CNN/YouTube for making the entire thing available online in a handy question-by-question format.
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