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Using Distributed Media (and People) To Ask Hard Questions

BY Dan Gillmor | Friday, May 8 2009

Ari Melber, at Personal Democracy Forum, explains “Condi Rice’s Tortured Macaca Moment,” in which Stanford University students questioned her about her role in our nation’s torture of prisoners in recent years. To call her response inept is an understatement, as many have explained (see Scott Horton’s deconstruction).

But Melber nails the larger import of what the students did:

(T)his incident also shows the prospects for what we might call a substantive Macaca Moment - using YouTube and citizen media to scrutinize our leaders on the issues, not gaffes.

The “Macaca” refers, of course, to former U.S. Sen. George Allen’s racially tinged slur of a volunteer for his opponent, made in a public place, caught on video and posted to wide notoriety on YouTube. Allen, a Republican who turned out to have a history of making odd racial remarks, lost his bid for re-election in part because of this incident.

Allen’s self-inflicted wound was one of many such milestones. Public figures are learning that when they say something stupid, ugly or just plain wrong, someone with a video camera may well capture it and make it widely available.

But Rice’s well-earned predicament has a more directly relevant antecedent, albeit one from which we might draw the wrong lessons as well as the right ones. That was when former president Bill Clinton, prompted by a question from a citizen journalist for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project, furiously denounced a magazine article about him and the then-fading presidential campaign of his wife, Hillary.

What was the wrong lesson here? It was the flagrantly biased way the citizen journalist, Mayhill Fowler, asked Clinton her question. As reader (and, in my view citizen journalist) Deanie Mills pointed out in TPM Cafe, this was gotcha journalism that crossed an ethical line. (Yes, of course Clinton should have realized his intemperate remarks might someday be available to the world; that doesn’t change the crappy journalistic method employed.)

The right lesson from the Clinton and Rice meltdowns is the one we should find a way to re-create, again and again: We need to organize to ensure that public figures — especially politicians and business leaders — are asked key questions, and not let them off the hook the way the traditional media tend to do.

We know that the political press corps and business journalists often avoid asking hard questions, or fail to follow up on each others’ good questions when the politicians and business people duck honest answers. This has many causes, including the worry of losing access to the rich and powerful people they count on to supply quotes for their (too often stenographic) reporting. Rice’s years in Washington surely taught her, as Scott Horton noted in his posting, that journalists were all like the “Beltway punditry and the access-craving White House press corps.”

Not the Stanford students. And not the rest of us, who don’t especially care if we occasionally make the rich and powerful uncomfortable.

Slowly, the traditional media have been inviting the rest of us to come up with questions for the people they cover. NBC played at this a bit earlier this year by inviting audience questions that might or might not be asked at an Obama press conference. Other news organizations did similar things.

Meanwhile, the savvy Obama media team has created an “Open for Questions” area in the White House website. It conducted an Online Town Hall experiment, drawing from citizens’ questions, that was modestly successful.

The Nation magazine, for which Ari Melber is Net movement correspondent and blogger, joined with the Washington Times and Personal Democracy Forum on a project they’ve called “Ask the President” — creating what Melber called a “people’s press conference” of sorts. Again, a positive step forward, in particular because it uses online community tools to (attempt to) figure out what the best questions may be.

But the press conference metaphor misses the wide potential, which was so neatly captured by the Stanford students. While a traditional press conference consists of a person in a room answering questions from the people assembled there — picking the questioners (and, in Obama’s case, most of the actual questions) — we can use the growing ubiquity of digital recording devices to turn the world into the press room.

How? By leveraging all these devices, and people willing to use them, in a wider and much more organized way — insisting, respectfully, that public figures answer the questions that matter.

The key would be to use technology — and public-spirited people’s willingness to participate — to a) aggregate unanswered questions; b) selecting ones that are most important; and c) getting participants to ask these questions of public figures when they appear in public.

A simple example: Congressional Democrats have been largely unwilling to confront President Obama on his endorsement of Bush-era presidential-power claims. Unfortunately, the Washington press corps and journalists in their districts have not bothered to inquire whether these representatives are as bothered by these claims as many said they were during the Bush years. Our team might agree to find members back in the district at small public events and insist on individual answers that would add up to some clarity on whether we’ll get any pushback against Obama’s own power grab.

Keeping in mind that I haven’t begun to think this all the way through, here’s an initial cut at how we might do it. I’d include the following criteria:

  • Questions would be submitted by anyone — journalists, users, experts, whoever.
  • We would collectively vote on the most important questions. (This is tricky, subject to gaming.) Alternatively, but not my favored method, we might ask a team of unquestioned experts to choose. (This is not very democratic or webby). Whatever the method, we’d end up with some question(s) to ask.
  • We’d gather and publish information, submitted by users or gleaned from calendars, about public and semi-public appearances of those we want to approach. An example of a semi-public appearance is a corporate annual meeting where only shareholders are permitted to ask questions.
  • Vitally, we’d require that the questions be asked in a polite way, and that we capture the exchanges on video if at all possible, but audio at the very least.
  • Answers would be posted immediately, to avoid repetitive questions that have already been answered.

I’ve run much of this by some smart thinkers in the field including Ari Melber; Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej, co-founders of the Personal Democracy Forum; and Jay Rosen, New York University’s eminent media educator and writer. We all agree there’s at least a germ of something useful here.

In the end, this isn’t about creating a global, distributed press conference, though that sounds cool. It’s about accountability.

We’ll be discussing this and related ideas at the PDF conference in late June. Hope you’ll join us.

[This article is reposted, by permission, from Dan Gillmor's new site Mediactive.]

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