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[Backchannel] Why Seattle's 'Debate 2.0' Never Happened

BY Diane Douglas | Thursday, March 7 2013

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Diane douglas is Executive Director at CityClub, non-partisan, nonprofit education organization dedicated to informing citizens and building community leadership in the greater Seattle region. She co-led the Debate 2.0 citizen project with Mike Mathieu.

In this column last May, my colleague, Mike Mathieu, wrote a story of hope about an initiative to transform the dynamics of political debates during Washington State’s 2012 gubernatorial election ("Beyond Media Spectacles: Debates as Conversations"). My post today, a bookend to Mike’s report, tells the disappointing reality of what actually happened. I share it as a learning opportunity for all of us working at the intersection of technology and civic life. I hope it inspires smart dialogue and critique, more collaboration, and ultimately, eventually, a win for democracy.

For 18 months, a group of committed tech-savvy and civic-savvy volunteers, worked with Mike and me to develop a new structure and format for political debates. Our goal was to thwart their devolution into overly scripted media spectacles that deliver canned talking points to passive consumers.

We planned a lively conversation between candidates and the public —substantive, issue-oriented, spontaneous—conducted simultaneously in-person, on television, online and through social media. We arranged for instant polling to source topics and questions in real time. We lined up the local FOX-TV affiliate as our television partner with its Emmy award-winning political analyst as our moderator. We obtained preliminary commitments from the candidates, and began building a network of individuals, organizations, schools, and associations to mobilize grassroots participation statewide. We devised incentives to foster diverse political participation, including an after-party featuring voter and volunteer registration teams from both party organizations and citizen interviews to determine how the debate informed candidate choice.

But in the end, our “Debate 2.0” never happened.

While publicly, both campaigns agreed to participate in as many debates as possible, behind the scenes, they jockeyed to manipulate the playlist, opting for a limited number of engagements with controlled terms. When we tried to form a coalition of major media affiliates to stand united against this power play, the media wouldn’t do it, choosing instead to accede to the campaigns’ wishes in order to secure a debate for their own outlet.

After stringing us along for months, one of the campaigns backed out and despite contacting its manager and the candidate through senior advisors, community leaders, party donors and everyone else we could think of who might have influence, we were unable to get them to reconsider.

Why? Because they had an alternative in the established network affiliates who committed to do an in-studio debate with no public access and pre-established topics, the kind of debate they could carefully control. The public got the appearance of a live candidate forum but almost nothing of its substance. And media complicity in presenting the semblance of genuine conversation rather than the thing itself was exacerbated by social media that projected an aura of personal access to candidates but really only pushed out more one-way messaging.

Debate 2.0 failed, but not our resolve to share the experience and go at it, smarter, again in future election cycles.

I’ll start with these three reflections and my sincere invitation to share your observations and insights:
--The political hurdles we encountered were much tougher than the technological, format and structural challenges of increasing democratic participation and transparency;
--The power structure we took on was much bigger than the political campaign machinery itself; it included the media establishment;
--This problem is more pernicious because of its invisibility; ironically, as the public is inundated by more political noise, its volume helps mask the absence of meaningful discourse and debate.