Net Election

Will There Be a Cyberdebate? 

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.   

It’s often said that American presidential elections are dressed-up personality contests, especially since 1960, when televised debates became a centerpiece of electoral decision-making. After all, few Americans focus on presidential politics until after Labor Day, and among those masses, autumn’s TV debates can shape opinion almost as decisively as images of Elián González confronting armed Immigration and Naturalization Service agents.

But although TV debates have considerable influence, few would maintain that they are the best possible vehicle for meaningful political exchange. What America currently calls presidential “debate” usually consists of little more than hermetic monologues tailored for television’s theatrical standards. A good one-line zinger—such as former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s classic “You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy” to Dan Quayle in 1988—is instantly more effective and lasting than any detail from a policy platform. Maybe television neutrally transmits political debate to a maximum number of citizens, but it’s just as likely that television itself shapes—and constricts—the possibility of genuinely open and enlightening debate.

Theoretically, the Internet could provide an end run around that conundrum. With its hyperlink capability and infinite room for give and take from millions of users, the Net could be the ideal medium for genuine political debate.

This fall, at least one group is willing to test that theory: Web White & Blue, an ad hoc Internet organization funded by the Markle Foundation. Beginning in October, Web White & Blue plans to provide a “rolling cyber debate” among presidential candidates.

The idea is not to replace TV debates. Jonah Seiger, the co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns who’s been tapped by Web White & Blue to set up a cyberdebate insists, “This is not going to be a dueling keyboards event.”

That’s a wise choice because, to date, Americans have not flocked to the Net to witness political debate. When Al Gore and Bill Bradley first met for a New Hampshire “town hall” debate in October 1999, for example, CNN carried the event live on both its cable channel and its Web site. The debate led to an 80 percent spike in the cable network’s ratings, but the Web site showed no appreciable increase traffic from the previous day.

The cyberdebate plans to avoid suffering the same obscure fate. It is not, its advocates point out, planned as a real-time, one-shot debate. Rather, it will use the first televised debate as a springboard, allowing campaigns, interest groups, and Web surfers to supplement and comment on the content of the televised product.

Moreover, Web White & Blue has smartly decided not to build a single destination site to carry the cyberdebate. Instead, it is teaming up with a broad array of Internet services in order to reach Netizens in the places where they already go. The partners include the Web sites of all the TV network newscasts (except CBS, which has no such site), as well as the cable news channels, America Online, Excite@Home, and Yahoo! Other partners include the sites for the New York Times, the  Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as Oxygen Media and the African-American culture site NetNoir. Seiger claims that Web White & Blue’s partnerships represent more than 85 percent of all Internet traffic, some 70 million unduplicated users.

Of course, many proposed and well-intentioned debates never get off the ground, sometimes for the simplest reason: The candidates won’t play ball. Nothing could stop Web White & Blue from running its own issues debate, of course, but clearly the project is far less attractive without the participation of the campaigns. Web White & Blue has retained Hotline founder Doug Bailey and former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry to try to get the major candidates on board, but as of early May, Web White & Blue had not received a participation pledge from either the Bush or Gore campaigns. (Candidates from other parties, such as Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan, will be included in the cyberdebate only if they are on enough state ballots to give them a mathematical chance of being elected.)

And therein lies the problem: One reason why presidential debates tend to be light on genuine substance is that campaigns know they can get away with vague promises and misleading anecdotes. It’s an oft-heard maxim inside politics that if you tell a whopper of a lie in a televised presidential debate, tens of millions of people will hear it; if it’s corrected in the next day’s newspaper, only a few thousand will ever see it.

A true cyberdebate would mean counterargument and (shudder!) accountability. Are the presidential campaigns really ready to be graded by a potential Web audience of millions? We’ll know by October.