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Commission on Presidential Debates Boldly Goes to Web 0.2, Launches a Dud

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, August 6 2008

This morning, the Commission on Presidential Debates and MySpace are announcing "MyDebates.org,," a "landmark partnership" that they claim "will do for the debates what TV did in 1960 for the Nixon Kennedy election." [The release they emailed around yesterday said there was a 5am PST embargo on this news, but given that their press release is now live on the web at http://www.myspace.com/mydebates, I figure they've broken their own embargo.] Their joint press release says this new site "will offer a host of interactive tools for viewers to virally engage in the political process." The release notes that "marks the first time that the CPD has paired with an Internet property to include online functionality into the event series and traditional debate format."

So, what are the "landmark" functionalities we're about to be treated to?

Visitors to the site will have the option of downloading a personalized application which, during the debates, will stream the television event live from the embed location (e.g. within a blog, social network, or website). The application will also provide users with an on-demand playback functionality as well as issue-based tracking, allowing users to track a candidate’s stance on issues they care about throughout the live stream. The full functionality will be available in the days leading up to the first Presidential debate on Friday, September 26.

Additionally, ‘MyDebates.org’ will feature high-quality video streaming and as the candidates are speaking, “issue icons” will light up as candidates discuss specific main topics. Users will be polled periodically throughout the debates with short questions with multiple choice answers (or iconic responses, e.g. thumbs-up/ down). This format will reduce distraction while eliciting specific and valuable feedback.

Translation: You can use a MySpace widget to stream the live video of the debate on your own site. Someone will tag the video content with some kind of icon-like issue tags, just in case you want to rewind to watch something again. And invisible pollsters will have the opportunity to poll viewers using this widget, for use in ways that you will have absolutely no control over.

Oh and there's one more bone: "The second Presidential debate, in a Town Hall format, will take place on Tuesday, October 7. ‘MyDebates.org’ will provide the Web platform through which Americans will submit questions which may be presented to the candidates during this event." I like that use of "may be presented." We wouldn't actually want to promise anything, would we?

That's it. This is pathetic. It's like saying, "I just bought a synthesizer and all I can think to do with it is play Chopsticks."

I don't fault MySpace for this travesty so much as I fault the Commission, for lack of imagination and courage. Recall that at least the MySpace/MTV forums during the primaries included real-time feedback from viewers that the audience could see, and the candidates even saw the aggregated responses, in real time. Also recall that Google/YouTube and the City of New Orleans have been offering their services for a candidates forum on September 18, and surely something creative could have come of that.

What they're offering us here is little more than live video streaming, which is like, so, year 2000. When you consider what YouTube and CNN did in the past year, along with what MySpace and MTV did, as well as what we did with 10Questions.com--in each case to expand voter participation in debates and in some cases open new kinds of feedback loops, you have to admit this is really disappointing. Honestly, it would almost be better if they didn't bother to include MySpace. (And one might want to ask, why only MySpace when plenty of other sites and services could provide this video service?)

Says Janet Brown, Executive Director of the Presidential Debate Commission, “Our educational partnership with MySpace builds on the unique power of digital media to further engage voters on the issues and help ensure their voices are heard in new and effective ways." She added, "I’m confident that this is the best way for new media to intersect with the general election Presidential debates."

"Best way"? This is depressing and should generate outrage. At a moment when we can start thinking seriously about Rebooting America and opening up the political process in all kinds of creative ways, the best the CPD could come up with was this? (In fairness, we should also blame the McCain and Obama campaigns, who no doubt told the CPD that they didn't really want any significant changes to what has become a very reliable and controlled format for the TV debates.)

I have to say, though, that while I'm outraged, I'm not surprised. The Commission on Presidential Debates has long been, along with the Electoral College, one of the more archaic and anti-democratic elements of the presidential election process. But unlike the Electoral College, the CPD isn't enshrined in the Constitution and has no particular claim on legitimacy. It is in fact a private entity that was created by the two major parties in 1986 (its founding chairmen were then-RNC chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-DNC chair Paul Kirk) to supplant the longstanding role of the League of Women Voters as a nonpartisan forum for presidential debates.

Both parties had reasons to be upset with the League for its honorable insistence on inviting a third-party candidate to the 1980 debates, independent John Anderson. And so they foisted themselves on the process, began taking corporate sponsorships to pay for the debates, and established arbitrary criteria for who could or couldn't be included in them. As a creation of the two major parties, the CPD has also been much more subservient to the interests of the presidential campaigns, giving them tremendous leverage over the content and style of the actual events. Since the Commission took over, the so-called "Spin Room" for post-debate media-massaging has been actually institutionalized, with a large arena next to the press holding pen prominently labeled "Spin Room."

Now they're giving us a shack and asking us to call it a "landmark." Feh. Please wake me when it's over.