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MySpace friends the Presidential Debate Commission

August 6, 2008 |  2:05 pm
2000presidentialdebate

The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit group formed in 1987 to run the official campaign face-offs every four years, hasn't been known for cutting-edge technology. In many ways, it's remained a creature of the decade in which it was created, much closer to the Lincoln-Douglas debates than bloggingheads.

The commission's board is made up largely of longtime political and government figures, such as former Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson and Newton Minow, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration. The commission lists two of its four honorary co-chairmen, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, as "deceased." And its website offers only transcripts of debates dating back to 1960, no videos. That means you can't watch classic moments, such as Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy" in the 1988 vice presidential debate (YouTube has a clip here), or Al Gore sighing his way through the first presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000 (pictured above).

But today the debate commission announced a bold step into the Web 2.0 world.

It unveiled a partnership with MySpace to create an interactive site for this fall's four debates, the first of which will be Sept. 26. Mydebates.org will offer live streaming of the debates, which also will air on all four major broadcast networks, along with interactive tools and a searchable video archive.

"We get blamed by people for being Neanderthals, but just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to include it in the debates," said Janet H. Brown, the commission's executive director. The commission wanted to make sure any new technology added educational value, not just...

...bells and whistles, she said. The commission's main job is to put on the officially sanctioned debates, a tall task for a small nonprofit. Anything else is secondary, Brown said.

“This has been something we’ve explored in the past, and for a variety of reasons, logistical and scale, it couldn’t come together," Brown said. So instead of offering video in its debate archive, the commission refers people to the C-SPAN store to buy past debates on tape or DVD.

But with Web technology becoming more refined, the commission believed this was the year to offer  new tools. It worked with BBH New York, an advertising and media agency, to solicit ideas from possible partners. The commmission chose MySpace, which will pay for the new, ad-free site.

"We offered our functionality with the notion that we knew the goal of these debates ... is all about information and education," said Lee Brenner, director of MySpace's Impact program, the social networking site's nonprofit and politics channel. "It’s a way for Americans to educate themselves in a different manner and ideally make a more informed choice when choosing their leader."

Mydebates.org will have several interesting features. It will offer a tool so anyone could embed the live stream on a website, blog or social networking page. The site will allow viewers to answer short polling questions about issues during each debate and see the results. An archive of the debates will be searchable by topics, bringing you right to the section where the candidates discussed it.

And in another interactive step, people will be able to submit questions that will be passed on to NBC's Tom Brokaw, moderator of the second presidential debate, on Oct. 7. He then could use them during that debate, the only one conducted in a town hall format that allows voters to query the candidates. But unlike two primary debates conducted by CNN and YouTube last year, people probably will not be allowed to submit videos of their questions, Brenner said.

Still, it's a big leap for the debate commission, and debate watching.

"This is history-making," Brenner said. "I think it will change the process for elections to come."

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington.

Photo: Al Gore, right, and George W. Bush debate in Boston on Oct. 3, 2000. Credit: Don Emmert / AFP.

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