What If You Threw a Cyberdebate and Nobody Came?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 23 2000 12:00 AM

What If You Threw a Cyberdebate and Nobody Came?

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

Seventeen major Web sites are collaborating with a nonprofit group to deliver daily presidential debates on the Web—an unprecedented format in both the online and offline worlds.

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Organizers are touting the "rolling cyberdebate" as a unique way for candidates to get their message out and for the public to become more involved in democracy. But there is one major problem: With slightly more than week before the online debate is set to begin, few of the presidential candidates have committed to participating.

Given that uncertainty, there is some doubt that the experiment will live up to its potential. "I, at this date, am not entirely convinced this is going to come off," concedes Kirk Spitzer, politics editor at USAToday.com, one of the 17 sites that will post the cyberdebate each day. (MSN, which publishes Slate, will also post the debate.)

The  Markle Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting public service within the communications industry, is spearheading the online debate, scheduled to run from Oct. 1 through Election Day. The format calls for a message of the day from each candidate in the medium of his choice—text, video, or photos. Candidates are then asked to respond to their opponents' messages. They also are asked to answer a question of the day, submitted by the public. The candidates also can provide links to their personal Web sites for voters who want more information.

Unlike the three televised debates sponsored by the  Commission on Presidential Debates—which sparked additional debate when Texas Gov. George W. Bush initially questioned the formats—the cyberdebate is open to any candidate whose name appears on enough state ballots that they could possibly win the election. The seven eligible candidates are given unlimited bandwidth to make their case.

Mike McCurry, co-director of the cyberdebate and President Clinton's former press secretary, says he hopes the cyberdebate would complement the three televised debates, which start Oct. 3, and perhaps counterbalance any advantages or disadvantages created by the televised performances.

The cyberdebate is far less spontaneous and risky than the televised debates. Still, it poses a challenge because of the resources required to submit information each day to the Markle Foundation. Jim Babka, press secretary for Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, said he "thinks" the campaign is planning to participate, but notes that limited resources pose a problem. "Even though we've got a full-time staff here, we're still pretty overworked."

Vice President  Al Gore is the only candidate whose campaign has confirmed that it will participate in the cyberdebate. "We thought it was a creative way to debate the issues," says Doug Hattaway, a national spokesman for the Gore 2000 campaign.

The campaign of the Constitution Party's  Howard Phillips also plans to participate. "This means a broader aspect of ideas will be there," notes spokesman Greg Moeller. "It sounds like a great thing to me."

But Tucker Eskew, a spokesman for Bush, says it is "premature" to say whether Bush will participate.

McCurry and cyberdebate co-director Doug Bailey, a founder and former publisher of the Hotline, a political newsletter, say it's not surprising that the candidates are still undecided given the frenzied pace of politics. They remain confident, however, that the candidates ultimately will realize that the benefits of participating are too great to pass up.

"It is an opportunity to get your message out the way you want to in an unedited way," says Bailey, a former Republican political consultant.

And not to be downplayed is the huge potential reach of that message. Combined, the 17 participating Web sites, which include rival sites such as Washingtonpost.com, NYTimes.com, Yahoo!, and Excite@Home, as well as more narrowly targeted sites such as NetNoir and Oxygen Media, reach 85 percent of the U.S. Internet audience, Markle estimates. In July, at least 49 million people visited the sites participating in the cyberdebate, according to Media Metrix.

The participating sites were found by researchers to be the most visited for political information during the major party conventions this summer. They are also the sites undecided voters are most likely to frequent, unlike true political junkies, who typically go directly to the campaign Web sites.

The long list of participating Web sites highlights the public-service element of the cyberdebate. "One of the things that I hope comes out of this is an example of how the Internet can play a meaningful role in our political process," says Jonah Seiger, co-founder and chief strategist of Mindshare Internet campaigns, which is handling the technological end of the cyberdebate.

"If it works as advertised, I think it could end up giving our readers a little bit more insight into the thinking of the candidates," adds Spitzer of USAToday.com. "If it works as advertised, it could be more interesting to see the campaigns questioning each other, rather than dealing straight to the press all the time."

But given the campaigns' lukewarm reaction to date, Spitzer doubts the cyberdebate will entirely fulfill its promise. He predicts, "I think they're going to be very, very conservative."

Ronna Abramson is an Industry Standard staff writer. This article is reprinted from the Industry Standard.

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