Thursday, July 9, 2009

Beyond the "Democratic Press Conference"

Last March the "big buzz" from the Obama Administration for technology buffs was the implementation of an Internet-based "democratic press conference," which I examined with the usual skeptical stance that I apply to all technocentric "solutions." I never saw any serious lessons-learned analysis of this endeavor; but, if there was any anticipation of further such efforts to "bring government back to the people" where press conferences are concerned, we have yet to see them. However, according to a BBC NEWS report filed this morning, Barack Obama will be engaging in a similar experiment with all of sub-Saharan Africa in conjunction with his visit to Ghana tomorrow.

As was the case with the "democratic press conference," Team Obama has invited anyone with the necessary technology to submit questions to our President. The BBC story provides the following details:

The White House has set up local SMS short codes for people to send their messages:

• Ghana - 1731

• Nigeria - 32969

• South Africa - 31958

• Kenya - 5683

Elsewhere, the number are: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

It has also set up Twitter feeds and blogs on a special page.

As of the filing of the story (10:38 GMT), Obama had received "thousands of text messages about Africa." This is two orders of magnitude less than the volume of questions that came in for the March press conference, but it is still pretty impressive. Once again, the question of managing the volume of input rears its head.

According to the BBC, the input that will actually be presented to Obama "will be selected by journalists from Senegal, Kenya and South Africa." In others words, if we accept the premise that journalists try to represent the interests of their readers, we are back on the turf of a traditional press conference, the only difference being that the input consists of tweets to Obama rather than letters to the editor. As I wrote in my analysis of the America press conference experiment, this is not necessarily a bad thing and may well be a good one. (It is almost certainly far superior to the American Idol approach to selection taken last March.) However, that will not prevent the White House media team from trying to push this event as something greater (and more "revolutionary") than it is:

The president's media adviser, Macon Phillips, told the BBC's Network Africa programme he wanted the messages to be part of a "continental conversation".

Mr Phillips said people could text whatever they wanted - questions, criticism or just general comment.

"What we can do is look at all these responses and find trends and popular issues and it gives us a better understanding of what people are thinking about," he said.

"There's much greater value than just question and answer - it's yet another way for us to see what's happening on the ground."

Whether you read this as silly or offensive will probably depend on whether or not you are a serious professional journalist. Those in the latter category work under a job description that requires monitoring "what's happening on the ground" on a day-by-day basis. This is a far more complicated affair than looking for trends among thousands of tweets all posted over the course of a few days. That complexity warrants the argument that the representative nature of a press conference probably serves the public good more effectively than a free-for-all arena in which anyone can submit any number of questions about any number of matters.

I suspect that those professional journalists might also turn apoplectic over Phillips' use of that word "conversation." There are a wide variety of communicative actions that take place in the course of political behavior; and, as I observed in my recent comments about diplomacy, conversation is definitely one of them. However, at the ontological bedrock for journalistic practice, a conversation is not the same as an interview (although conversation may be engaged as a strategy for enabling an effective interview); and the exchange of questions and answers has its own category (which, again, may be part of an interview process). Conversation is best viewed as a "social strategy" that determines whether or not Jürgen Habermas' concept of an "ideal speech situation," through which participating parties can arrive at better understanding, will be achieved or undermined; and I am sure that all of us have experienced conversations that led to both of these outcomes.

Once we apply this reality check, we can then fall back on Russell Baker's observation, which I recently cited, that "all successful government must be based on a fiction." In the context of my own writing on such matters, I see this as an instance of what I have called a "fiction of convenience;" and there are definitely times when fictions of convenience can be more effective than stark realities. One way to read Baker's text is that a President can be a more effective executive through the fiction of being "open to conversation" with all constituents, whoever they may be; and that fiction can be just as effective when that same President is representing his constituents in conjunction with visits to other countries. From this point of view, it may make sense to read Phillips' words as metaphorical, rather than literal. This would blunt my accusation that his remarks are foolish; but, even from that figurative point of view, they may still give offence to professional journalists.

Perhaps the real "truth that dare not speak its name" is that we do not yet know how to govern effectively in the world the Internet has made (just as we seem to have lost touch with the nature of work and economic questions such as compensation for that work). We are in that topsy-turvy world of Burn After Reading, where we are deluged with lessons and have no idea what we have learned. Those who evangelize "technology solutions" cannot see beyond what the technology does; but those impacted by the technology live in that "beyond." Their need for good governance today is no different from that of the Athenian Δήμος, but they are embedded in a radically different context. In a time of crisis, those people will need to be sustained by more than fictions of convenience; and I cannot think of a better time for the Obama Administration to make the paradigm shift from the circuses of those fictions to the bread necessary for each of us to make it from one day to the next.

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