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MTV's Candidate Dialogues Are Promising

BY Michael Connery | Wednesday, September 26 2007

Cross posted and updated from Future Majority.

MTV's "dialogues" with the candidates are starting up tomorrow, and on deck is Sen. John Edwards. As reported on multiple sites, these dialogues have the potential to be the most interactive and informative debates thus far in an election cycle that's seen some decent innovation in how candidates and the public interact. Streamed live over MySpace TV and, the debates offer the chance for viewers to provide instantaneous feedback on the answers of each candidate and to pose new questions in response to those answers. Live chats will allow viewers to hash out candidate responses on the MTV and MySpace websites, and no doubt the candidates themselves will offer ample space for supporters to comment on the dialogues.

If all goes according to plan, the event should function as an interactive feedback loop that looks something like this: one of the moderators will quiz candidates on issues selected a pool of voter-generated questions. Viewers will then rate the candidate's responses, and supply follow-up questions, which are picked up by the moderator and posed to the candidates. In a perfect world, this will be a truly interactive conversation, and one that breaks down the candidates' all too familiar ability to steer clear of questions they don't want to answer and drive the conversation towards a set of predetermined talking points.

For those curious (I know I am) as to how the instant polling of the audience will work, the kind folks at Mashable have produced this early glimpse at the MTV MySpace Widget that will allow viewers to rate the candidate’s responses in real time.

I have perhaps unreasonably high hopes for this debate, though there are a number of issues that still give me pause about MySpace and MTV’s endeavor to alter the mode of public debate.

First, and foremost is the day and time of the event: Thursday at noon. I don’t know whose call that was, but this strikes me as only the second worst time to pick. Students - presumably one of the core audiences for this debate - will be in school at that time, and many high schools do not allow students to access social networks from campus. College students likewise will be in class or roaming campus instead of glued to a computer screen, and young professionals will surely be at work. Is MTV looking to sabotage it’s own event, or are they trying to keep the numbers manageable for fear that their technology won’t be able to handle a high volume of participants? I’m not sure which (if any of these) might be true, but the questions are worth asking.

Second, the announcement of the moderators is giving me The Fear that this will be a less than successful event: Gideon Yago, whose political coverage never particularly impressed me as hard hitting, is one of the moderators along with SuChin Pak, an MTV news reporter of whom I’ve never heard of (even though, thanks to my girlfriend, I watch a lot of MTV). The third moderator is Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza. Unfortunatley, even with all the fancy flash widgets and chatroom chatter, it is the still the editorial discretion of these moderators that will determine how successful and how groundbreaking these dialogues really are. I’ve got a hard time seeing Yago or Cillizza really push these candidates on their answers. SuChin Pak is a wild card in this equation, but I can’t see Viacom putting someone out there who will really rock the boat. If Cilliza and Yago and Pak do not select tough questions, fail to push Edwards to go beyond platitudes when viewers vote unfavorably, or if they let the candidate dodge follow-up questions from the digital audience, these dialogues will be more political theater than participatory public debate.

Despite this, I remain cautiously optimistic. After a number of years with lackluster political coverage and little involvement in truly engaging young people in politics, MTV is emerging as one of the more innovative players of the campaign cycle. Along with these dialogues, MTV has announced a 50 state vlogging strategy, in which they are hiring 1 reporter in each state to cover the local political scene, and providing those reporters with a salary and video equipment to capture their experience on film; the company recently launched THINK MTV, a combination online social network and video sharing site designed purely to serve the interests of young activists. Even Choose Or Lose, MTV’s previously lackluster PSA campaign is stepping up its game this cycle.

I hope these events will be groundbreaking, though they could easily just fizzle out. Our first chance to find out will be tomorrow at noon, when John Edwards takes the stage.