THE 21ST CENTURY TOWN MEETING

July 25, 2007

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Charleston—The eight Democrats running for president were at center stage, but the spotlight at the CNN/YouTube debate was on technology. CNN, not surprisingly, hyped the debate to the nth degree. Just about every local reporter circling The Citadel’s parade ground called it “unique” or “groundbreaking.”

Conceptually, it wasn’t. Town meetings have been a staple of politics for a couple of centuries. Technologically, it was. Sort of. We’ve had Internet questions inserted into televised debates before. CNN’s PR squad might recall the network used the Internet approach in its recent debates in New Hampshire.

Still the marriage of old reliable CNN (after all, the network’s been around since 1980) and the online upstart YouTube was visually innovative. Self-effacing people in t-shirts and ball caps asking questions, rather than self-important journalists in suits and ties. I liked it. Why not YouTube?

True, about 80 percent of the questions could predictably have been asked by journalists. The other 20 percent, though, exposed the intimacy, tragedy and everyday dilemmas of American citizens in a way that journalists would not have asked. We journalists tend not to talk about our illnesses, finances or sexual orientation. We don’t pose as snowmen. Well, most of us don’t.

The questions—38 by my count out of close to 3000 submitted, by CNN’s count—ranged too widely for much lasting dialogue. Moderator Anderson Cooper, at times, prodded the candidates. Other times, he seemed rushed to get to the next YouTube submission. The candidates, fortunately, have now been in enough debates to engage and challenge each other. There is more telling body language and less deference.

When Bill Richardson said he’d have all U.S. troops out of Iraq in six months, Hillary Clinton and others questioned the practicality of a hastened withdrawal. When relief workers in Darfur questioned America’s absence from that scene of genocide, Richardson and Joe Biden could say they had been there. We need to hear about these places before the U.S. gets embroiled in another foreign war zone, assuming we can extricate ourselves from what the candidates repeatedly called the “quagmire” of Iraq.

As an educator, I’d like to hear more about the candidates’ views on education.

Barack Obama showed a sense of place when the candidates were asked if there should be reparations for slavery. “The reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment…in our schools,” Obama said, citing the state’s so-called “corridor of shame.”

There were three questions about education, but one was a throw-away: “who was your favorite teacher.” Another sought, but failed, to provoke a public-private divide. Well-off Democrats send their kids to private schools, too.

The only effective question on education brought uniform denunciation of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program. “Scrap it. It doesn’t work,” said Richardson. “It was a mistake. Start from the beginning,” added Biden.

Afterward in the “spin room”—a no-tech holdover from late 20th century politics—

former S.C. Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum noted that the federal government accounts for only nine percent of the state’s education funding, but has been “invasive” through No Child Left Behind. The question Tenenbaum, an Obama backer, would have asked the candidates: “How will you close the achievement gap?”

Also in the spin room, Democratic Party national chairman Howard Dean was effusive, calling the debate “fantastic.” Dean, an early adapter of the Internet for political campaigning, said he “knew it would be good because it was different.”

That means when the Republicans get their YouTube turn in September in Florida, it will no longer be different. How long today’s gimmick will last is anyone’s guess, but remember the Internet is heavily populated by surfers with purportedly short attention spans.

South Carolina voters will get at least one more look en masse at the candidates, or those that remain, with debates for Republicans (on Fox) and Democrats (on CNN) planned for January. Format? How about an old-fashioned town meeting?

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Things you didn’t see on the CNN/YouTube debate:

The names of the 12 Citadel alumni who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, though reference was made to them. The names are posted outside Summerall Chapel.

A small plane circling the campus trailing a banner that read “StopHerNow.com.” Not too many years ago, the Citadel was compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court to admit women cadets. But this was about Hillary Clinton.

The bookshelves of The Citadel’s gift shop had books by or about Clinton, Obama and John Edwards. Also Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and non-candidate Newt Gingrich.

The political biographies were displayed near a slim volume titled “The Art of Good Taste: A Guide to Social Skills for Ladies and Gentlemen.” Read whatever you like into that juxtaposition.

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Charles Bierbauer covered political debates, among other things, for 20 years as a CNN correspondent. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to www.schotline.com.

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