Rather than fielding questions from news anchors, the presidential hopefuls will confront videotaped queries.
On July 23 at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., Democratic presidential candidates will answer to YouTube, Google's online video sharing site, under the watchful eyes of CNN's Anderson Cooper and its cameras.
CNN is hosting two presidential debates with YouTube, one for Democratic candidates next month and another for Republican candidates in September.
But rather than fielding questions from respectful news anchors, the presidential hopefuls will confront videotaped queries posed by the YouTube hoi polloi.
"I think these debates represent a giant leap forward in the way that news organizations cover elections," said Jonathan Klein, president of CNN, during a press call. "CNN has been busy reinventing political coverage over the last several years. We have been really dedicated to that, making sure that we are engaging viewers and voters in every way we possibly can and reflecting the dramatic ways that politics itself has changed. It didn't make sense to keep covering politics in the same old way."
YouTube is currently soliciting video submissions, which it will be accepting until the day before the event. Perhaps two dozen will eventually be selected to be aired during the debate.
CNN and YouTube executives on the conference call characterized the video interrogation as a democratization of national political debate, despite the fact that CNN will fulfill its traditional role as editorial gatekeeper by selecting the videos presented.
"But I think, in an odd way, this is the most democratic of all possible structures," said David Bohrman, senior VP and the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for CNN. "I mean, everyone in the country at this moment has a chance of having a question asked of someone who very possibly could be the next president."
Without a doubt, video is a force to be reckoned with in politics, as former Virginia Sen. George Allen found out when his re-election bid ran into a damning video recording of his own behavior.
But video's power -- and it goes back decades -- has been to indict with evidence rather than to solicit a verbal response. Delivering a question via video in no way ensures an answer that's any more thoughtful, honest, or platitude-free than usual. The questions matter, but less so than the response. It's expected that the quality of the debate will be determined largely by the willingness and ability of Anderson Cooper to hold political feet to the fire.
CNN and YouTube executives maintain that video questions change the game. We "are doing this because we are bringing a level of authenticity to politics and it is bringing transparency and access to voters in a new way," said Chad Hurley, co-founder and CEO of YouTube.
Indeed, if there's something to be said about this effort, it's that anything that gets more people engaged in the political process is a good thing. And if greater engagement leads to an increase in page views, no one at CNN or YouTube will complain.
Asked about financial arrangements of the partnership, Steve Grove, the head of News and Politics for YouTube, and CNN's Klein declined to discuss the deal's terms. Klein added, "We don't think of this as an advertisement. We think of this as an enormous public service."
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