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Hillary Clinton's "Digital Town Hall of the Americas"

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, April 14 2009

The State Department has announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host a "Digital Town Hall of the Americas" just before this weekend's 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The "town hall" portion of the events, says State, will consist of Clinton taking questions submitted online, while she's on a stopover in the Dominican Republic on her way to meet Haitian President René Préval. Clinton hits the DR Friday. State's press release came out midday yesterday. That suggests that this event went from planning to execution very quickly. In fact, State has released few details about how one goes about putting questions to Clinton before the event, beyond some general mentions of Ustream, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Orkut, and something called Hi-5.

But there's a case to be made that State has made a branding error here. Secretary Clinton's "town hall" might be the least interesting part of how State is using multimedia to open up what should be a diplomatically important meeting. The 34 democratically-elected leaders of western hemisphere countries, including President Barack Obama will be meeting to hammer out agreements on the rather vital topic of energy security and environmental sustainability in a time of global economic instability. Past summits -- 1994 in Miami, 1998 in Chile, 2001 in Quebec City, and 2005 in Argentina -- saw concrete working agreements emerge. For example, at was at a Summit of the Americas that the United States and the countries of Latin and South America worked out an arrangement to drop the processing fees on remittances (cash sent home by those living abroad) down from extortionist heights to more manageable levels. Before you start marveling about my intimate knowledge of the history of Summits of the Americas gone by, stop. All that good knowledge and much more is found in a video that the State Department and the up-and-coming HowCast has put together to introduce us to the event. There's another one that makes the case of how I, as an American in the broadest sense, will be impacted by what happens in Port of Spain this weekend. Standard issue State Department propaganda, perhaps. But it's still good information that a citizen of the world want to know. Civic education goes down easily when it comes in the form of well-produced chunks of web video.

The State Department's decision to go the participatory route, no matter how rushed a choice it might have been, signals that State embraces the idea that there's a role for the American public how the United States engages abroad. State, it's worth noting, is actually putting up a promising game online across the board. For one thing, they post full videos of spokesperson Robert Wood's daily press briefings, like the one above, the same day they take place. (As a point of comparison, posts Robert Gibbs' daily briefings only in transcript form.) The State Department online hub for the summit will live at The will, they say, be posting on-the-scene video interviews with world leaders as the summit takes place.