Not sure if it transformed the debate, but you could see the early signs of a significant change in the format, maybe less for the candidates, who slipped back into their characteristic postures (thanking the citadel, reaching across the aisle, asserting their patriotism, etc…) than for the rest of us. To my eye, YouTube’s biggest impact was on the voters' role in the exchange and of course, the impact of the questions. The voters asked for specifics, (which Republican would you take as a running mate? would you work for minimum wage?), they mocked the traditional evasive rhetoric, they put the candidates on the defensive. My favorite moment: when Joe Biden felt compelled to declare his personal worth which spurred a comical posturing of many of the candidates, describing how little money they had.
Of course, the format raised questions about which of the candidates could speak to this newly empowered voter, but didn't provide any answers yet. None of them, really, rose to the challenge, though Obama probably came closest, with his confident ability to shift between more official levels of discourse and an easy vernacular style. He shut down the silly debate on the poorest candidate by stating the obvious fact that they all had plenty of money compared to the worker on minimum wage. But you could see them having to abandon their traditional evasions in order to directly answer the question.
I don’t want to overstate the case. The traditional setting and rules still dominated the experience: the careful parsing of words, the sentimental anecdotes, etc.,. but when each new video came on screen, representing gay couples, parents of veterans, underpaid workers, you could feel something new, even on through the double screens. The citizen-reporters had a confidence, a personality, even, at times, a sharpness that they’d never have on the floor of arena, under the scrutiny of the lights.
All of us could suddenly see ourselves asking direct, clear, hard questions to candidates. Suddenly, or possibly we became a nation of voters aspiring to get their questions on a national debate. Talk about empowerment. And what a worthy ambition! A new kind of politically engaged American Idol. Many of us would never be comfortable on television, but it’s many of us would be thrilled to be on YouTube on Television, after we had rehearsed and reshot our question until we got it just right.
My colleague, Jim Dowd, who insists he’ll add his comments to this post, has further suggested that the whole You Tube structure started to reposition the journalists. Cooper wasn't asking questions as a comfortable insider, so he had to add a new kind of value, probing for specifics, asking for follow-ups. Just as the Internet has marginalized (or at least redefined the role of) travel agents and accountants by giving consumer-citizens access to information and choice, now it’s forcing reporters to rethink their role.
I know it's getting mixed reviews but I like it so far.