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Using the Web, and Openness, to Improve Political Debates

(This posting appeared today in the Washington Examiner newspaper.)

In this impossibly early presidential campaign season, so-called “debates” are already making modest waves. They could be much more useful, and there’s promising progress to suggest that they will.

On May 5, we learned of one potential bit of progress. CNN announced that, after the broadcast of an upcoming presidential-candidate debate New Hampshire, it will make the entire video available under a copyright license that permits wide re-use of the material in a variety of ways — and will do so with all future such debates it broadcasts.

This was a breakthrough, in part because CNN recognized that it should not “own” such material. Rather, as the network said in its announcement: “The presidential debates are an integral part of our system of government, in which the American people have the opportunity to make informed choices about who will serve them. Therefore, CNN debate coverage will be made available without restrictions at the conclusion of each live debate.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the CNN announcement came after a competing network chose to grossly restrict re-use of another debate — and after a campaign by public-spirited people in favor of more openness, a campaign that may have influenced Barack Obama, a leading Democratic candidate, to urge his party toward wide distribution of its own event videos.

The CNN competitor, MSNBC, showed the opposite of good corporate or journalistic citizenship. With a debate it put on in South Carolina, the network insisted on odiously stringent restrictions, as media critic Jeff Jarvis noted after getting a copy of the “Usage Rules” from a source at NBC.

Oh, it was available (as I was writing this) on the MSNBC website. But it was online in a format that not everyone can use, and was festooned with annoying advertising.

This represented nothing but control-freakery on the part of MSNBC, plus good old fashioned greed. If anyone was going to make money, or journalistic hay, from the event, it would be just one organization.

Now, these “debate” events may not be the height of political discourse. If anything, they’re relatively trivial joint press conferences, nothing like the serious conversations that we need to make serious decisions about the next leadership of this nation.

But the CNN precedent is important. Let’s see what people do with the videos that come out of the CNN-sponsored events. Let’s see how far and wide the videos spread to people (like me) who won’t have time to watch them live, and how they are used to create new political journalism and opinion.

If we do it right in this election cycle, the conversation will include not just the candidates and Big Media, but the citizens as well. Making the videos available for remixing is a start, but only a start.

We could have more serious debates if the candidates used the Internet better. How?

For starters, let’s recall a mini-controversy from the 2004 election. Some people suspected that President Bush might have been “wired” with some kind of radio device during a debate with John Kerry, and suggested he was getting answers to questions from a back room. I didn’t believe that at the time, but I did ask a question: So what if he is?

In fact, I think a real debate on the Net would include not just a candidate (for any office) but also his or her staff, advisors and supporters. Sure, I like to see how quickly and sensibly a candidate can respond in real time, but that’s not the only quality I seek.

I’m looking for candidates who know how to get good answers to difficult questions, too. Why not have a debate that stretches out over days or even weeks, where candidates and supporters can delve more deeply into the issues, respond to each other and seriously get at the core of these things? Wouldn’t we learn more from that than whether he or she can regurgitate canned statements? I would.

We can update debating this time, with remixes, complex Web exchanges and much more. Give CNN a hat tip. They’re helping to spark the conversations.

1 Comment on “Using the Web, and Openness, to Improve Political Debates”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on May 8th, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    don’t forget Lawrence Lessig’s petition on this.