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"Townhall" Style Debate a Dot-Bust

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, October 7 2008

Did anyone use MySpace's MyDebates page, the "official online companion to the Presidential Debates"? Alas, not too many. And it looks like only four questions of the millions submitted online were asked by Tom Brokaw, the event's moderator. That, plus the pre-agreed rules that prevented the studio audience from asking follow-up questions or even showing emotion, made the "townhall" style presidential debate more like a wax museum animatronic replica of a townhall. What a shame.

Jose Vargas of the Washington Post just emailed me saying, "I'm writing a column for tomorrow--in your ideal new media world, how should these debates have been conducted with our changing media ecology in mind?" Here's what I wrote him:

In an ideal new media world, we'd open up the debates in several ways, each taking advantage of the web's economy of abundance.
1) We'd invite everyone to submit questions and help filter the best ones to the top, for the moderators to ask, or at least select from. The fact that something like six million questions were submitted to Tom Brokaw shows you how many Americans want to have a say. All the questions should be posted in a public, searchable format, so we the people can see what's on our minds. Even in retrospect, it would be useful to know what people were asking about, and whether the questions Brokaw asked were representative.
2) We'd give the candidates a lot more time to respond. The whole notion that we should judge presidential candidates on how they answer in 90 seconds, or that major issues can be boiled down to 90 seconds, is ridiculous. TV time is scarce, but online there's no need for such arbitrary constraints.
3) We'd involve the public directly, and in real time, in judging how well the candidates are answering the questions being asked, and we'd include that information in aggregate form. Showing a dial-test line from uncommitted voters in Ohio is just one step in that direction. There's no reason why we can't invite everyone to express their responses, in real time, using everything from the web to old fashioned dial-up phones. And that real-time feedback would be fed back into the debate loop, for the candidates to address. If millions of viewers think a candidate isn't really answering the question, maybe this way we'll get them to be more responsive.
4) We'd have a follow-up round, so the public and the candidates could dig deeper, and get past the soundbites. We'd also ask the public to rate the questions asked by the debate moderators, to see if they're actually doing a satisfactory job.

The main thing is to take advantage of the open, interactive, and abundant nature of the web. If a candidate can post a 37 minute speech online or a 13 minute documentary (and get millions of views, as Obama has done), then surely we can remake the debates in the age of the Internet to deliver rich, detailed and interactive content to the America people, to help us make up our minds and improve the quality of the national discussion.

It goes without saying, we will have to get control of the debates away from the private corporation known as the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was set up and is still controlled by the two major parties, if any of this is to happen. For them to claim, as Janet Brown, the CPD's executive director, that using four questions out of millions submitted via MySpace was "the best way for new media to intersect with the general election Presidential debates," is just shameful. Bring back the League of Women Voters!

For some reason, this screenshot from MySpace's homepage captures the disconnect for me.