Sunday, July 22, 2007

CNN: Missing the Point

I live for the day when we have presidential candidate forums that feature thoughtful discussion, rather than tiresome “debates” (the Latin derivative of that word is “to beat down” and that’s what we get in the current format). You know, events that aren’t scripted by the candidates’ hacks or the celebrity newsreaders at the networks. The ones that ask tough questions or call candidates on being unresponsive when they lapse into their stump speeches rather than offer thoughtful answers.

Dream on, you say! Ok, but don’t call me—or the millions of other Americans, especially young people who are particularly savvy at boring through the spin that passes as discourse—“cynical” or “disengaged” when we tune out.

But what would happen if real people were able to engage directly with candidates in a conversation? And if they were able to do so unscripted and unfettered by “rules”? And (gasp!) they were allowed to follow up if candidates didn’t respond to the question. Who wouldn’t tune into see what could be TV’s hottest and most interesting reality show—especially if it’s live?

A step, admittedly a baby one, has been taken by CNN toward that vision by asking people to make videos of questions they want to ask the candidates and then send ‘em in to the network. Working in partnership with You Tube, CNN claims the effort gives the public the chance to ask the candidates questions “directly.” But how direct is it when CNN’ still gets final say on whose videos appear? And where’s the interaction between asker and respondent?

Evidently, CNN, is like lots of others who think that because they “use technology,” they’re promoting cutting-edge democracy. Uh-uh. What makes technology democratic isn’t the technology. Technology is merely the vehicle for a larger process that invites open and free communication among all those engaged in the discussion—sans traditional institutional mediators and filters. If that’s not democracy, I don’t know what is.

Alas, most politicos don’t get that and continue to view technology as just another platform to push out their messages to a public they assume has no opinion (none that they want to hear, anyway). According to Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigns, in a recent Washington Post piece, “The problem with the format is it's not fully embracing the culture of how the Internet determines what's of value….Look at Wikipedia. The 'wisdom of the crowd,' as it's known, is not only a technological phenomenon, it's a cultural phenomenon."

Too bad CNN doesn’t seem to understand that—yet. On the bright side, at least they’re doing something relevant, which is more than we can say for their compatriots at the other networks. Still, don’t be surprised if the ratings for this latest extravaganza aren’t the chart-toppers CNN may be anticipating. The wisdom of crowds suggests that most folks, especially young people, will see through this as nothing more than old wine in new bottles and continue to look to alternative sources for their news—the ones that care more about democratic participation than ratings. We can only hope that might change things down the road.
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Whither Organizations?

Citizen-centered approaches underscore the importance of individuals, but does that mean that organizations are becoming less important in civic and political life? If so, why? Allison Fine, author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, believes that technology helps to “break down the walls of institutions” in ways that promote more collaboration and reciprocity among diverse groups of individuals and groups. It also provides the grease for more rapid and efficient social problem-solving. “When you have the ability, even as a single individual to see a problem like an oil spill on a lake and can tell thousands of people about it instantly," Fine says, "you can mobilize more people faster and more effectively.” As a result, the role of organizations shifts from agenda-setting leaders to supporters or diffusers of information and resources across wider networks. The thousands of people who left their offices and schools in early 2006 to participate in immigration marches, Fine points out, were fueled less by formal organizations and more by the buzz created among peers using cell phones, text messaging, and blogs.

Recently, launched a new international initiative that underscores the increasing power individuals can have by simply flicking their keypads. The brainchild of founder Ami Dar, Imagine! is a worldwide effort to “create a global network of people who want to build a better world.” To get there, Dar says, “we need to reach out, connect, and plug in.” Imagine! then gives people a range of ways to do just that, including attending or hosting start-up meetings in their neighborhoods, schools or workplaces during the week of April 23-29. So far, thousands of people from scores of countries around the globe have committed to holding meetings.

So, where do organizations fit into that?

Some believe that thinking that “it’s all about individuals” is na├»ve and unfeasible. As one critic said in response to an email blast regarding Idealist’s initiative, “This assumes that people will sign up and things will just naturally sprout up and happen.” Based on her own experience in attempting something similar, she said that “it isn’t going to happen without some kind of more formal or structured organization behind it or, at the very least, involved in some way.”

I decided to ask someone with deep experience in working with communities what she thought about this question. Martha McCoy, director of the Study Circles Resource Center didn’t disappoint, offering this thoughtful response:

“If the equation is formulated as individuals instead of institutions, then we run the risk of losing the possibility of individuals engaging with institutions-–and of losing the possibility of institutions engaging with individuals who provide them with accountability--and in ways that support the public good.” To do that requires opportunities for people to get together and talk about things first, which can lay the groundwork for more participation and effective action.

But dialogue isn't a magic bullet for such partnerships. McCoy’s found that while, indeed, such exchanges can and do often result in “new energy, new participation, new relationships, and even some problem-solving,” it often isn’t enough. “Time and again, we’ve heard formal and informal leaders express the need for more intentional organizing that will lead to the creation of diverse public spaces and we know that this won't happen without intentionality, due to historical patterns of residential segregation, varying senses of civic efficacy, and longstanding barriers to participation." McCoy said that dialogue also leads to a desire among participants to create meaningful links to institutions (via people working at all levels in schools, police departments, municipal governments, social service agencies, etc.) that can open avenues for institutional and policy change. And there's also a desire then to link people’s engagement with public work aimed at creating change-– including institutional and policy change.

Indeed, it’s a refrain I’ve also heard, especially among community organizers (see last month’s blog, “The Power Equation in CC’d Work”). McCoy says to address meaningfully the complex social and political issues that advocates care about, the avenues for participation need to be clearly linked to opportunities to take collective action and create more responsive and citizen-centered institutions, policies and governance. “This requires a kind of community organizing, but not the usual 'either/or' top-down, elite-driven approach or bottom-up strategy, but the give-and-take of side-by-side organizing that would be greatly enhanced by the kind of network and platform that groups like Idealist are providing. I think of it as the needed formation of democratic capital that draws on--but that goes beyond--the formation of social capital.”

In short, it’s institutions and people working together but as somewhat more equal partners than has been the case previously. Traditionally, institutions have tended to leave out the public (think public schools, foundations, government, public agencies) in their decision-making processes. The public, in turn, has drifted away from institutions, thinking either that they have nothing to offer the experts and professionals that dominate institutional ranks or that they, as individuals, can and should do it themselves.

McCoy thinks it would be helpful for groups like to think about how their networking platforms could tie into and enhance the other democratic dialogue-to-action efforts happening on the ground, are generating energy and change. “Ultimately, platforms like Idealist’s could be critical to linking community efforts with each other, and to providing a critical piece of an infrastructure for a more citizen-driven democracy. In fact, this is something the folks at the Deliberative Democracy Consortium have been talking about.”

Some additional thoughts on this issue appeared last year in the Kettering Review (Spring 2006). Ernie Cortes of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in “Toward a Democratic Culture,” echoes McCoy by contending that it’s going to be up to citizens to start rebuilding institutions in ways that encourage broader deliberation among diverse groups of people and organizations in communities and, ultimately, help undergird action. In the same issue, Editor Noelle McAfee, agreed: “For democratic communities to work, there need to be longstanding public institutions through which people can come together, institutions that are not shy about standing up for what citizens are coming to, nor of building relationships with officials. These institutions could convene public deliberations and serve as venues for public action, convening with officials, and even advocating for the public wills.”

Now the challenge is figuring out how to do it.
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