Talk of the Tube: How To Get Teledemocracy Right

American
politics is suffering from a near-fatal attraction to direct
democracy.
Symptoms of this attraction include the proliferation of
referenda, particularly
in the western states, and the credibility given to Ross Perot's
proposal to
introduce "electronic town halls" in which television viewers
would call in votes
on current policy issues.

We have also brought elements of direct democracy into
presidential selection by
creating a nominating system dominated by the direct primary.
Since 1968, when
Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without entering a
single primary,
the number of states holding primaries has grown from seventeen
to thirty-nine;
primaries are now the televised battleground where the nomination
is effectively
decided.

In addition, a near-daily supply of opinion polls,
reporting the
approval levels of candidates and the popularity of various
positions, has given
us a system that is far more plebiscitary in its use of direct
democracy than
textbook analyses of American institutions would suggest.
Political scientists
from the late V.O. Key, Jr., to Giovanni Sartori have compared
the interaction
of television and opinion polling to an "echo chamber" in which
polls bounce back
impressions presented in the mass media. Despite their volatile
character, these
polls set the terms of political competition and dominate the
agenda for public
debate.

What's more, the media reports poll results as if they were solid
constructions
able to support platforms and candidacies. The political
landscape is altered
beyond recognition when presidential approval ratings drop from
91 percent to 30
percent, as they did between spring 1991 and summer 1992 for
President Bush. Or
when an enigmatic billionaire is able to climb the polls from
nowhere to become,
if only briefly, the leading candidate for the presidency without
contesting a
single election. When General Schwartzkopf was substituted for
Ross Perot as a
presidential challenger in one poll, he did almost as well,
revealing the
flimsiness of the public information base on which the Perot
challenge rested.

Three central factors television, polling, and the impulse to
bring the people
directly into the process have given us a thin democracy of
stylized impression
management. Yet, as I will suggest, these same three factors
could be turned to
a constructive purpose to give greater substance to our
democratic processes.


Couch Potato Democracy

This campaign season has initiated a number of new variations on
these themes.
Some changes have improved the system in minor ways, while others
have only
increased the superficiality of our increasingly plebiscitary
televised
democracy.

The hallmark of the season has been the proliferation of
opportunities for
citizens to respond to what they see on television. Citizens have
been given
opportunities to join in the dialogue, to call in for
information, to call in
questions to live broadcasts, and to participate in town
meetings. Supplementing
the shrinking soundbite democracy of conventional news coverage,
many hours of
"talk show democracy" have been broadcast on national television.
The advantage
has been an increase in the breadth and spontaneity of the
televised political
dialogue. The disadvantage has been the addition of new
pseudo-voices for "we the
people" to the campaign process.

Conventional news coverage continues to filter opportunities for
the candidates
to talk directly with the public. In well-known, parallel
studies, Kiku Adato and
Daniel C. Hallin showed that the average candidate "soundbite,"
the period in
which a presidential candidate could speak uninterrupted on the
evening news,
shrank from about forty-two seconds in 1968 to about nine seconds
in 1988. Recent
studies by the Center for Media and Public Affairs show that
during the 1992
primary season, this shrinkage continued. The average candidate
soundbite has now
diminished to 7.3 seconds.

The move back to a more extended discourse would depend on the
interaction of
network norms of coverage and candidate calculations. CBS
announced that it would
attempt to counteract this trend with a guaranteed minimum length
for soundbites
of thirty seconds, but the policy has produced controversy
because in practice,
it ends up omitting candidate statements. Meanwhile, the
candidates have learned
how to speak in nine-second bites to get on the news. So for now
the effective
political discourse reaching the mass public is mostly the
shrinking soundbite,
a medium that reduces political debate to messages worthy of
bumper stickers or
fortune cookies.



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A major factor counteracting this trend, at least during the
primary season, was
the loosely coordinated effort to broadcast debates. From
December 15, 1991 to
March 15, 1992, eleven debates were televised nationally. While
these debates
offered a substantive contribution for those who listened, they
did not transform
the effective political discourse reaching the mass public.

By and large, the public learned about the candidates from the
soundbites the
evening news produced rather than from watching the debates
themselves. Ratings
of the major network broadcasts ranged from a low of 2.1 for the
climactic
CNN/League of Women Voters debate before the New Hampshire
primary to a high of
5.5 for the ABC debate March 5 in its "Nightline" slot. (Each
rating point is a
percentage of the 92.1 million television households and
represents 921,000
households.) These ratings put the debates squarely in the bottom
ninth of
network programming in their respective weeks. Unlike the final
presidential
debates of the general elections, primary debates, when candidate
selection is
a live issue, have not attracted large audiences. (In contrast,
the 1988
presidential debates in the general election were estimated to
have drawn more
than 160 million viewers.)

Notably, when these debates were turned into soundbites and
newspaper stories,
they were reported mostly in terms of whatever conflict,
controversy, or
confrontation they generated. The first debate, on NBC, was most
notable for the
flap over Jerry Brown's advertising his 800 number on the air and
for Harkin
holding up a dollar bill to symbolize the value of the
middle-class tax cut. The
CNN debate in New Hampshire was reported mostly in terms of the
fire Paul Tsongas
drew for his support for nuclear power. The Denver debate is
remembered for
Tsongas's response to Clinton that while he might not be
"perfect," at least he
is "honest." The Dallas debate was notable for Clinton's
rejoinder to Brown that
he should "chill out," a phrase that Hillary later took credit
for in the press.

The debates were only intermittently enlightening (with the
possible exception
of the MacNeil/Lehrer debate on PBS), even for the few citizens
who watched them.
But the greater damage may have been that to the extent the
debates did reach the
public, they came as sensational, recycled soundbites. The
debates, then, while
a noble effort, did not transform the effective political
discourse reaching the
public.

Another noble effort worth mentioning is the opportunity the
Discovery Channel
provided to all the major candidates to communicate for twenty
minutes each
directly to the public, without the filters of pundits or
editors. Unfortunately,
the broadcast achieved a rating of only about 1.5, reaching about
1.2 million of
the nation's television households. Because the format produced
neither drama nor
conflict, it was not widely reported and produced very few
soundbites.


Talk, Talk, Talk

A major departure this campaign season has been the use of talk
shows. Perot
announced his possible candidacy on "Larry King Live" on CNN.
Both Clinton and
Perot fielded questions from viewer call-ins on the "Today Show"
and "CBS This
Morning." Perot held a two-hour "Nightline" town meeting on ABC
while Clinton
held a ninety-minute town meeting on MTV. In one of the most
ambitious talk show
forays into politics, Clinton and Gore appeared for two hours on
"CBS This
Morning" with questions from a studio audience, live satellite
connections to
remote locations around the country, and questions collected from
viewer letters.
This format was successful in combining viewer input from around
the country with
follow-up questions from the talk show hosts so as to yield a
more sustained
dialogue.

President Bush tried his hand at the town meeting format by
talking with
hand-picked visitors to the White House on "CBS This Morning."
Bush argued that
town meetings were nothing new. He had, after all, campaigned in
1980 and 1988
with broadcasts of voter forums entitled "Ask George Bush."
However, those forums
were scripted, a practice that got Bush in trouble more recently
when he
complained to a live mike last December that he had been asked
the questions in
the wrong order in an ostensibly spontaneous question-and-answer
session in a
teleconference to a California teacher's convention.

The main benefit of talk show discussions with ordinary citizens
has been the
injection of spontaneity into the political dialogue. Talk shows
permit us to
examine candidates for longer than a shrinking soundbite and they
do so under
conditions that may produce spontaneous exchange. Instead of
press questions
focusing on the horse race and political strategy, ordinary
citizens have tended
to raise more substantive questions about the economy, health
care, and other
issues that touch their lives directly.

Still, while citizen questions on the talk shows have been
notable for their
substance (if not for their follow-ups), host questions retain a
whiff of the
sensationalism that is part of the regular agenda of such shows.
Talk shows tend
to treat politicians as just another group of celebrities. Hence
it was Phil
Donahue who relentlessly pursued Clinton about Gennifer Flowers
and draft issues
before the New York primary, only to be upbraided by a member of
his studio
audience who wanted substantive questions. And when Stone
Phillips interviewed
President Bush on "Dateline NBC," the president threatened to cut
the interview
short rather than face a question about alleged adultery, a
question Phillips was
told he should be "ashamed" to ask in the inner sanctum of the
Oval Office.
Conversely, talk show democracy blurs the distinction between
politician and
media figure by allowing such figures as Pat Buchanan, Jesse
Jackson, John
Sununu, and David Gergen to alternate between roles.

Of
course, the talk show or town meeting ideals hold out the
promise of even more
radical departures from conventional political coverage. In
addition to
lengthier, more spontaneous dialogue, television viewers may also
see their
reactions tabulated, in some process that appears analogous to
voting. This was,
of course, the basic idea behind Perot's proposal for the
"electronic town hall."
As Perot described it, major issues, such as the budget deficit
or health
insurance, would be explained on the air "in depth, not in
soundbites." Viewers
would then call an 800 number "by Congressional district." This
feedback, Perot
promised, would be tallied and used to get the White House and
Congress "dancing
together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."

Something very close to Perot's proposal briefly saw the light of
day last
January, after the President's State of the Union address. In a
pilot for a
possible series called "America on the Line," CBS tabulated about
300,000 viewer
responses to questions about the President's speech and the state
of the union.
However, the viewers who decided to phone in their responses to
the CBS program
presented a distorted picture of public opinion, at least when
contrasted with
poll results from a representative sample asked the same
questions (and reported
by CBS). For example, 53 percent of "America on the Line"
respondents said they
were "worse off" now than a year ago, while only 32 percent of
the representative
sample said so. Only 18 percent of "America on the Line"
respondents reported
they were in the "same" economic situation as a year ago, while
44 percent of the
representative sample reported being "the same."

This kind of electronic town hall has two fundamental defects it
is neither
representative nor deliberative. It is not representative because
the sample is
self-selected. Instead of being chosen through the methods of
modern survey
research, through a random statistical process, viewers at home
select themselves
by their decisions to call in.

Viewers calling in to an 800 number constitute what Norman
Bradburn, Director of
the National Opinion Research Center at the University of
Chicago, has called a
SLOP a self-selected listener opinion poll. A SLOP played a role
in distorting
media coverage of the Carter/Reagan Presidential debate in 1980,
when ABC used
viewer call-ins (in this case with charges for calling a 900
number) to declare
Reagan an instant two-to-one winner, as compared with random
samples that viewed
the debate as a close contest. Like the Literary Digest
fiasco of 1936,
which predicted a landslide for Alf Landon over Franklin
Roosevelt, self-selected
samples draw disproportionately from those who feel strongly
enough to call.
Large numbers do not by themselves offer any indication that the
self-selecting
viewers represent public opinion. CBS has reported that over 24
million calls
were attempted to "America On the Line," but far more accurate
results could have
been achieved from a carefully constructed random sample of
several
hundred.

Neither is the electronic town hall deliberative. Citizens are
expected to phone
in their reactions off-the-cuff, have little opportunity for
debate or for
consideration of alternative views, and often they have little
background
information. This points to one of the biggest quandaries of
direct democracy in
a large nation-state: the belief that there is little reason to
bother learning
about candidates and issues because it is so easy to calculate
that one vote is
unimportant and will have little effect on the outcome.

One of the more inventive departures this election season has
been directed at
this problem of underinformed voters. The Center for National
Independence in
Politics has launched "Project Vote Smart" providing an 800
number, advertised
on CNN, which citizens can call to get nonpartisan information
about candidate
positions. The same device, advertising a number for citizen
information on
television, has been employed by the notorious Floyd Brown (of
Willie Horton ad
fame). In a new twist on negative campaigning, Brown offers
callers the chance
to hear tapes of conversations between Gennifer Flowers and Bill
Clinton.

In either case, the problem of individual incentives for
information remains.
Primaries, referenda, and opinion polls have brought power
directly to the
people, but under conditions where the people have little
motivation to think
about the power they are supposed to exercise.

Is
there some way of getting over this problem of effectively
motivating ordinary
citizens to acquire political information and deliberate about
it? Some recent
experiments, both in this country and in Britain, suggest a new
way of combining
television and survey research. In five different British
elections, Granada
television took a random sample of 500 citizens from a benchmark
constituency in
northern England. After discussing the issues for a couple of
weeks, these 500
citizens were transported to London, where they appeared in a
televised
question-and-answer session with the three party leaders, to be
broadcast a few
days before the British general election.

Unlike American "town meetings," which have employed either
haphazard collections
of people in a studio audience or viewer call-ins, the Granada
500 group was a
statistically representative sample that was also prepared on the
issues.
However, the Granada 500 took no votes, made no decisions. It
simply offered a
new kind of forum for questioning the candidates, forcing them to
confront issues
of direct relevance to ordinary citizens.

The Jefferson Institute in Minnesota has been experimenting with
"citizens'
juries" that question candidates and deliberate about their
positions. In
cooperation with the League of Women Voters, it has held such
juries in Minnesota
(in a Minneapolis mayoral election and on various policy issues),
and it plans
to hold a similar forum, in cooperation with local television
stations in
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in the Pennsylvania Senate race this
fall. In
contrast to the Granada 500, citizens' juries vote on the
candidates. However,
it is worth noting that with juries of eighteen people, they
cannot be
statistically representative of the entire population, as a
full-scale random
sample would be.

Both the citizens' jury and Granada 500 use randomly chosen
citizens who are giv

en the opportunity to deliberate about public policy and who are,
in addition,
offered the chance to question candidates on television. These
elements are both
included in my own proposal for a "deliberative opinion poll" at
the start of the
primary season on national television. Instead of a random sample
of a benchmark
constituency, as with the Granada 500, or a group the size of a
jury, as with the
Jefferson Institute, I have proposed that we take a full-scale
national random
sample of 600 people and transport them to a single site where
they can question
the presidential candidates in person on national television.
Even if the viewing
audience were limited to the comparatively small audience of
primary debates, the
results of such a deliberative poll at the start of the primary
season would
receive enough coverage to play a major role in launching
candidacies and issues
so as to reform the "invisible primary" the initial period of the
nomination
struggle that has come to largely determine the nominee in an
increasingly
front-loaded presidential selection system. Hence the timing of
such a televised
deliberative poll could give it an influence far beyond the 600
delegates and far
beyond its viewing audience.

A deliberative poll harnesses to a constructive purpose the same
factors that
have, thus far, only trivialized our mass democracy television,
polling, and the
impulse to bring the people directly into the process. A
deliberative poll brings
the people into the process but in a statistically controlled
way; it uses the
techniques of polling but under conditions where the responses
represent more
than echoes of shrinking soundbites; it uses television to
amplify deliberation
rather than to disseminate canned material or advertising.

An ordinary poll models what the public thinks, however little
the public knows
or pays attention. A deliberative poll, by contrast, models what
the public would
think if it had more opportunity to think about the questions,
more information
about the issues, and opportunity to question candidates
extensively. Like the
advent of talk show democracy, a deliberative poll would add
depth and
spontaneity to the dialogue. However, it would do so with a
carefully constructed
sample that would have every incentive to pay attention and take
the process
seriously. Members of the sample, unlike ordinary citizens
viewing the campaign
at home, would be motivated to pay attention because they would
appear on
national television with the candidates. The problem of
incentives for
information and deliberation is solved for members of the sample,
and the results
are then amplified by the television broadcast.

I offer this proposal not as a panacea but as a televised
demonstration of an
alternative democratic model. Recall that the direct primary is,
itself, a
relatively recent innovation fostered primarily by the
Progressives early in this
century and, in a second wave of reform, by the McGovern-Fraser
Commission
reacting to the fiasco of the 1968 Democratic nomination
struggle.
Experimentation with alternative models is clearly called for,
even if there is
no single proposal that can, by itself, guarantee a credible
system.

Last year I joined with WETA, the Washington PBS station, to
attempt to mount a
televised deliberative opinion poll, the "National Issues
Convention" to be
broadcast for three days over PBS at the start of the primary
season in January
of 1992. While the event was cancelled for 1992 because it ran
into funding
difficulties, WETA has since joined with all ten of the nation's
presidential
libraries to sponsor the event in 1996 at the LBJ Library at the
University of
Texas at Austin. With luck and proper funding, the next primary
season will begin
with a deliberative opinion poll on national television.

To be sure, a televised deliberative poll or kindred forms of
policy jury are
neither a new form of direct democracy nor a substitute for the
more usual forms
of representative democracy. A functioning polity requires high
voter turnout,
responsible parties, a well-informed electorate, and competent
elected officials
whose job is to deliberate day in and day out.

However, our elected legislators are truly representative only to
the extent that
the voters pay attention. Otherwise, they exist in an echo
chamber of their own.
In that sense, a deliberative poll can serve as a kind of role
model. It can
demonstrate the capacity of ordinary citizens to appreciate the
complexity of
pressing issues; it can give elected representatives a more
authentic form of
feedback; and it can shame pollsters into resisting the
temptation to
oversimplify. Perhaps it can even help restore public interest in
public issues.
We shouldn't expect new forms of public deliberation to replace
the ordinary
mechanisms of democracy. Rather, we should appreciate their
potential to infuse
representative democracy with new life.



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