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Public Submitted Thousands of Debate Questions Online, Not Millions [Updated]

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, October 8 2008

I've twice now registered a note of skepticism that, as has been reported in some high-profile places, the questions submitted by the public through the Internet for last night's town hall presidential debate in Nashville numbered an extraordinary six million. MyDebates, the joint project between MySpace and the Commission on Presidential Debates, offered the chance to whisper in moderator Tom Brokaw's ear by submitting a question online for his consideration. And sure, there does seem to be a growing public hunger for finding some way to engage in these debates more fully. But 6,000,000 questions still seems like an implausibly high level of participation. (Not to mention that that's a fairly absurd stack of questions for Brokaw and his team to go through in the 72 hours or so between when submissions ended and debate day). It's looking like that skepticism may have been warranted.

Brokaw himself got into the mix when he reported last night that the number of questions that came in online totaled in the "tens of thousands." (See video) Curious about the discrepancy between that figure and press reports, we here at techPresident did some digging. Lee Brenner, MySpace's Executive Producer of Political Programming, just reported to our Andrew Rasiej that the number of questions that came in through was "just over 25,000" -- a far more plausible figure. Still a bit of a mystery is where a figure 240-times the actual number came from in the first place.

No matter how many questions came in online, though, in the end only a select few got their time in the spotlight. A grand total of four of the public's questions were asked of the candidates during the course of the 90 minute debate.

UPDATE: I've gotten some clarity on this situation. I spoke with Frank Fahrenkopf -- co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, CEO of the American Gaming Association, and former head of the Republican National Committee -- who explained to me how that six million figure made it into print (or pixels, rather). Fahrenkopf said that he attended a pre-debate luncheon in Nashville on Monday, where NBC's DC Bureau Chief Mark Whitaker was asked how many times the network had been contacted regarding the debate. Whitaker, says Fahrenkopf, responded "six million."

Fahrenkopf passed that detail along to a reporter and it ended up in a major newspaper's blog post. From there, it was picked up by a good number of other news outlets. Google News, for example, returns 31 results for the phrase "six million questions," many from prominent newspapers and other online news sources.

That six million number, it seems, represents an estimate of the total number of emails, calls, and otherwise transmitted comments and questions that the network took in -- not specific questions for John McCain and Barack Obama that came in online. I'm working on following up with NBC News and Mark Whitaker to nail down with more certainty what it encompasses.

The number of actual questions that came in through, the joint project of MySpace and the Commission on Presidential Debates, is, as we earlier reported "just over 25,000," according to MySpace's Lee Brenner. Why such a low submission rate? One reason, perhaps, the idea that citizens actually could submit questions for the presidential candidates online was something of a well-kept secret in the days leading up to the debate -- never really getting the level of online pickup that breathtaking 6,000,000 figure seems have enjoyed.

UPDATE: Mark Whitaker, the NBC News DC bureau chief who replaced Tim Russert after Russert's death, sheds light on what took place here. "I'm afraid this six million figure has been misinterpreted and misused," Whitaker told me in an email. He had been told in a meeting that the network had received in the neighborhood of six million "messages" in advance of Tuesday's debate in Nashville. Though what form those messages took wasn't specified, he suspects they included emails, online messages, and phone calls. "Had I known the figure would appear in print," wrote Whitaker, "I would have gone back to NBC for specifics and also made clear that only 25,000 formal questions were submitted to MySpace for actual use in the debates."