There are risks for the candidates in skipping a debate that has been – legitimately or not – portrayed as a chance for the people to cut through the media filter and get responses directly from the candidates. (You don't, after all, want to look like you're afraid to address your potential constituents.)
But if the frontrunners do decide to skip the debate, it seems to me they're not the only ones who don't come off well for it. What, one wonders, does such a decision imply about mainstream media debate moderators? Think about it: Does this mean the candidates are more comfortable answering questions from representatives of the media than the dreaded unwashed masses? One might easily conclude that media folks need to be asking tougher – or at least different – questions than they have been.
That wouldn't, in truth, be an entirely fair conclusion. There is a not-always-positive unpredictability in questions coming from ordinary citizens, who are much more likely than CBS News to, say, offer up a question posed by a snowman. But the reluctance of the GOP frontrunners to participate does at least engender the perception of an unsavory media complicity in the political process. A fourth estate-moderated debate shouldn't, after all, be the destination of choice for politicians looking for a safe space.
There are some uncomfortable truths about the reality of workaday journalism, like the fact that news organizations need to be wary of angering candidates for fear of losing their access – something that can color both questions and coverage. That's a factor that non-journalist questioners don't have to worry about, which is a big part of the reason that the questions of ordinary citizens – and debates like this – are valuable. But the YouTube debates, and the perception created by the frontrunners' hesitancy to participate, could also provide ammunition for those who argue that the mainstream media are too tied to those they cover to ask the tough questions. And that's not something news outlets want to be debating.