The buzz over today's "alternative" press conference at the White House has been going for about a week, and it has taken me about that long to try to get my thoughts about it in order. For those who have missed that buzz, Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott has just provided a handy summary:
Call it Round Two of the news conference, with a big Internet twist. President Barack Obama took questions from the White House press corps on Tuesday in a prime-time, East Room session that represented the most formal and time-honored of president-and-reporter interactions. On Thursday, he is taking to that same room for another public grilling — this time by regular folks armed with questions submitted via the Internet and in person, as part of a political strategy to engage Americans directly.
I suspect that this is the sort of thing that Dan Froomkin had in mind when he ran a Commentary piece advocating "a Wiki White House" on the Nieman Watchdog Web site. Participation has certainly been impressive. According to Elliott, as of 9 AM (Eastern time) this morning, over 100,000 questions have been submitted; and this revives one (of many) issues that I had in criticizing Froomkin's proposal. The fundamental premise behind Wiki technologies is that admirable goals such as understanding and knowledge may be achieved through conversation (or, as Jürgen Habermas put it, "communicative action"). One consequence of this premise is that the "quality level" of such understanding and knowledge depends heavily on the quality level of the conversations. When the conversation deteriorates (as it does in what I have called "Wikipedia Fight Club" practices), the "signals" of knowledge and understanding similarly deteriorate into "noise." What Froomkin could not see through his Web 2.0-colored glasses was that the quality level of conversations tends to be directly dependent on the number of conversants. It is thus hard to imagine that Habermas' concept of an "ideal speech situation" would accommodate over 100,000 participants, just as he did not recognize that some conversants might be more interested in undermining understanding than in achieving it (which is likely to be the case when you have that large a number of conversants).
In this respect it is important to note that tonight's press conference will not be based on Wiki-style conversation. Here is Elliott's summary of the actual process:
Obama's campaign allowed supporters to organize themselves to go door-to-door and raise money. Because of that, many felt an ownership of the campaign and devoted countless hours to giving Obama the Democratic Party's nomination and then the presidency.
Obama's aides are taking that step forward, incorporating tools that let visitors to the White House Web site pick the questions Obama will answer, turning the president's Thursday event into a democratic press conference.
Political strategist Simon Rosenberg described this as "part campaign-style politics and part 'American Idol.'"
So is this really a "democratic press conference?" To address this question we need to turn back to Christopher Blackwell's article, "Athenian Democracy: a brief overview" (listed on the Dēmos home page as "An Introduction to the Athenian Democracy"). As I did the last time I reviewed this source, I want to begin with the semantics of the word "democracy:"
For the Athenians, “democracy” (demokratia, δημοκρατία ) gave Rule (kratos, κράτος ) to the Demos ( Δήμος ).
Blackwell's approach was then to dig into the semantics of Δήμος:
Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district.
Note that adjective "smallest." The Athenians recognized, at least implicitly, that there were problems in having too many conversants, which meant that it was necessary to keep administrative units at a manageable level. For matters on a scale larger than the confines of such units, it was necessary to appoint representatives, who could then have their own conversations on a more accommodating scale. This insight was important enough that it became a fundamental building-block of our own democratic process. In terms of the language of Elliott's summary, our "ownership" extends only as far as those we directly delegate to represent us. Through such delegation we strengthen the odds (but do not guarantee certainty) that the signal-to-noise ratio of the conversation will be an effective one; but at the same time we must monitor those conversations to make sure that those we delegate are representing us the way we want to be represented. (In other words representatives need to be continually reminded that they are accountable to those who delegate them.)
This covers a good portion of how our Constitution has shaped our Government. On the other hand the Constitution says nothing about press conferences. Indeed, it says nothing about the President having any conversations beyond those concerned with the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our Government. As the press conference became more institutionalized, it provided a new de facto set of representatives to converse with the President. They were not delegated by any "deme." They were appointed by the institutions of journalism that they represented. If the deme did not like the representation provided by one of those institutions, they could collectively decide not to patronize it. Representation was determined by the market economy, rather than conversations within the deme.
Today's press conference is going to try to change those rules. The risk, however, is that the model Rosenberg described is more plebiscitary than representative. This is mass selection on an American Idol scale, rather than delegating representatives to put hard questions to the President better than we can (and then calling those representatives to account for their performance). Morely Winograd, who runs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California found a good way to summarize the process:
In the new world of online media, formal press conferences are just one element or program to get the message out — to those, usually older, who watch such things on TV. The online version he is doing is an alternative way to get out the same message, in this case on the budget, targeted toward a different audience, usually younger.
In both cases the questioners are just props — or, in some cases, foils — for the star, Obama, to deliver his message. But in the latter case, they get to self-nominate instead of be selected by elites.
In other words the very principles of conversation itself have been undermined. It is all about "props … for the star;" and props are never concerned with such elevated matters as communication and understanding. This is just another way to play the same dog-and-pony show on a new stage, or, to invoke that metaphor that become so popular during the campaign, a new way to put lipstick on a pig.
For those who think that a verb like "undermined" might be unnecessarily hyperbolic, let me recall the last experiment with reader-rated content, the Citizen's Briefing Book. For those who have forgotten, this was when the Obama transition team used Change.gov to, as Tim Dickinson put it on his National Affairs blog, empower "average citizens to suggest and vet policy proposals that will ultimately be presented to the president." What were the resulting top three citizen proposals on the basis of "citizen rating?" Here they are (again):
Ending Marijuana Prohibition
Bullet Trains & Light Rail
An end to the government sponsored abstinence education to be replaced by an introduction of age appropriate sex education.
Is this where this evening's conversation will go? According to Elliott, Obama aides will probably be imposing a bias in favor of energy, health care, and education. In other words there will be "(wo)men behind the curtain" using user-submitted (and rated?) questions as a prop (what else would you call it?) to reinforce the priorities of the Administration. I happen to share these priorities; but that does not warrant my giving any approval to a plebiscitary pig, no matter how good its makeup artist was!