On the Road to Recovery – Part I

If it’s really true that any civic media worth its salt is inherently dialogic – and I’m certain it is – you may wonder why this post reads like a monolog, and a fairly autobiographical monolog at that.

Well, we’re setting a large table here – for 300 hundred million guests eventually – so I’m hoping a post of 2,200 words, to be followed by a lengthy Part II – will be excusable IF (and only if) it gives you a menu for a truly nourishing and delectable repast.

And of course you get to critique the menu with your comments at the end. You’ll also find a couple polls.

So – where to begin. Well how about with the immediate present . . .

In 2008 America ran out of gas and came to a screeching halt. The giant Ponzi scheme that had fueled its seemingly endless consumer spending spree – a scheme cooked up by Wall Street and its regulatory and tax code-writing enablers in Washington – suddenly ran out of investor pockets to pick. Overnight, Americans saw the world’s financial system crumble before their eyes. Then folks everywhere began to feel economic pains not felt since the Great Depression.

How had things come to this pass? And how would America and the world recover? civic-media-1

Recovery would perforce occur on two fronts, for America now faced two distinct yet deeply related crises. The visible economic crisis, central bankers hoped, would be resolved by trillions of dollars of government bailouts and stimulus plans designed to do – guess what – get consumers spending again. (“Keep hope alive.”)

Yet government trillions would do NOTHING to resolve – but possibly something to perpetuate – the underlying civic crisis: that of government authority subverted/usurped by Ponzi schemers and other monied interests. Responding to this root crisis, angry Americans elected a new president, a smart man who promised to return democracy to the people, and to renew it by empowering citizens to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future.

Barack Obama was of course onto something. He was advancing the only remedy available to a democracy in times of civic crisis: a government that leads by listening to the people and deriving its vital energies from them.

When representative democracy fails, participatory democracy is the only alternative to autocracy.

How long had it been since America had seen a government that listens to citizens and learns from their input? As a child of the 1960’s, I could recall no such time. The steady trend, rather, had been in the opposite direction: towards government that listened to money and that led by trying to persuade citizens to listen to money – wealth – as well.

So when the Ponzi crisis of 2008 hit us like a tsunami, it came to me as a shock – but no surprise.

Since the late 1980’s I had worked in Chicago to create media-driven civic partnerships designed to make citizens and government responsive and accountable to each other in shaping the city’s future. These partnerships, which had some success, existed to bring out the best, not the worst, in Chicagoans and their elected leaders.

Looking around today, it’s great to see such partnerships rapidly taking shape at the national level. Credit the Internet and hundreds of political and social networking websites, both partisan and non-partisan. George Gilder’s brave and astonishing 1985 prediction in Life After Television – that the interactive, citizen-empowering digital “teleputer” (or PC) would soon overthrow the oppressive, citizen-disempowering medium of analog TV – was finally coming true. Americans were at long last beginning to advance credible alternatives to the gridlock and money-driven outcomes of a government that for decades had quietly been moving from democracy towards oligarchy.

It goes without saying, though, that the evolution of a more participatory democracy, and of the interactive, mediating civic media needed to sustain it, is far from complete. What we have today is an informal, largely unconnected network of political forums of all kinds. This powerful network enables millions of interested Americans to communicate 24/7 with each other, and with government. But only to a degree. I believe it will ultimately prove to be a feeder network for a more authoritative and productive civic media network that has yet to take shape.

To transform America’s political decision making process in ways that facilitate national recovery, American needs a formal civic media network, accessible to all citizens both as observers and as voting participants, that is controlled by no special interest and that is credibly non-partisan, issue-centered and solution oriented. The ongoing civic dialogs of this formal (but by no means official) civic media would be charged with helping America define and solve its most pressing problems and with helping it select and maximize its most promising opportunities as well. I see it doing its civic work on Sunday evenings on prime-time TV, with citizens and elected leaders using telephony and the Internet to advance a decision making process that tackles and resolves a single key issue over a period of two or three months.

That said, any medium – prime time or not, commercial or public, print or electronic, community or mainstream – that fulfills this non-partisan, issue-centered and solution-generating function would be doing the community or nation-building job of a civic media.

In 1988, when I began developing civic media in Chicago, many people (at City Hall, foundations and university departments of journalism and communication) dismissed the concept as a pipe dream. Yet ten years later, Chicago citizens, public officials and media professionals were using civic media to make real strides towards solving Chicago’s deadliest, most intractable problem – gangs and drugs – in a drug-ravaged neighborhood on Chicago’s far West Side. MIT established its Center for Future Civic Media. Today civic media is taking shape nationwide. Here’s a summary of progress to date:

  • In politics, the massive demand for interactive media experiences that has fueled the growth of all modern interactive communications technologies has at long last spilled over from the fields of entertainment, business and personal communications into those of politics and government. For the first time since the advent of network TV in the 1960’s, election outcomes in 2008 were driven as much by the interactive Internet – blogs, streaming videos, and hundreds of partisan and non-partisan political websites  – as by the televised political spot ads that for decades had determined (and corrupted) these outcomes. Barack Obama, it must be said, spent hundreds of millions dollars on these spot ads. At the same time, he championed the idea of an interactive partnership between citizens and government in America. Will he be America’s Great Facilitator? See his Change.gov website and his 90-second YouTube video describing his “Your Seat at the Table” initiative. Then vote in our poll on this topic. John McCain, for his part, called constantly for a government that listens and is accountable to the people. In so doing, McCain was affirming civic media’s core principle of mutual responsiveness and accountability between citizens and government. Both candidates clearly got the message sent by voters in the 2006 mid-term congressional elections: we are fed up a corrupt, gridlocked political system that denies us a voice in the political decisions that affect our lives.

  • In business, CEO John Chambers at CISCO is empowering employees much as civic media empowers citizens. He has created “a distributed idea engine where leadership emerges organically, unfettered by a central command.” CISCO is becoming a company where leaders lead by listening to employees and then bringing their best ideas to market. Wow. See Ellen McGirt’s very useful cover story in the December Fast Company.  Company-wide decision-making at CISCO seems to be taking what Google has done on this score to a new level.
  • In technology, the dynamic mix of print and electronic media needed to effect and sustain a citizen-government decision-making process been in place for years. Americans have seen it on their home TV screens. And without knowing it, they have made use of the most powerful large-audience decision-making process ever devised. This (surprise, surprise) is the integrated mix of telephony, Internet and network TV known as Reality TV. While trivialized to date by TV networks for reasons of political correctness and financial self-interest. Reality TV’s transformative power was confirmed in the sixth season of American Idol, which generated over half a billion viewer votes in 23 episodes, with 66 million votes recorded in the final episode alone. This power rivals that of the ballot box. Yet when you think of it, the voter-driven game show of Reality TV is in essence a media-driven, bastard offspring of the great game of voter-driven democracy. It now needs only relatively minor refinements in order to be realized for civic purposes.

Given these developments, how will a civic media – a “distributed idea engine” like CISCO’s – take shape in America? Clearly this mediating media will have to function as

  • An umbrella, big tent or hub for political discourse occurring on all existing political or civic media.
  • A dialogic media that allows all Americans (including elected leaders) to speak their minds and listen to and learn from each other.
  • An informational and educational media that informs users and encourages and rewards informed discussion and debate.
  • A solution-generating media whose solutions are demonstrably superior to those of the existing money-driven, decision making process that has gridlocked government at local, state and national levels.
  • A market-driven media that taps the presently untapped market of the whole of all 300 million Americans for a stronger, better informed voice in the political decisions that affect their lives. By tapping this market, this media attracts revenue from commercial advertisers and financial support from institutions and individuals.

At this point the question arises as to what mix of modern communications technologies can best fulfill these three civic functions. As indicated above, interactive, voter-driven Reality TV is a promising candidate. Like democracy, Reality TV works because it gives viewers the chance to vote, and vote repeatedly, on characters they care about. Return this decision-making power to a government of, by and for the people, focus it less on characters than on critical issues that voters care about – on the search for solutions to them – make its votes advisorial and non-binding to elected officials, produce and govern it in ways that ensure its integrity and credibility, and you are poised to renew American democracy in an age of information.

But wait. A question arises, an objection, actually. And it’s the biggy, the main obstacle to a citizen-participatory civic media. So let’s tell it like lots of people think it is: Americans are incapable of making smart decisions on the issues that affect their lives. I hear many versions of this objection: Americans are too stupid, too uneducated, too unAmerican, too dumbed down, too selfish, too lazy, too indifferent or simply too busy to be involved in politics. Are all groundless. They spring either from prejudice or a fear of lost privilege. Then there’s the objection I hear coming from elite political insiders: no smart decision is ever made by a group of more than twelve. This objection is of course inimical to participatory democracy. In my experience, it does not hold up. Simply put, decisions affecting the public that are made without public input are far less intelligent and productive than decisions made with public input. That said, decisions made with public input require an informed public and a decision-making process that has integrity and credibility.

In 2006 I wrote a treatment for a civic Reality TV show called America’s Choice. In 2007 I shopped it around to some high profile media execs and learned that the TV networks aren’t ready for it. Still, it’s a monster concept, the kind of transformative programming that CBS CEO Leslie Moonves says he’s looking for. So Leslie, let’s talk. America’s Choice fully and I daresay exquisitely refines reality TV for civic purposes. It will make CBS a ton of money. And as a college I worked for CBS founder William S. Paley.

Could shows like America’s Choice be the future of American politics? Imagine five civic media reality TV shows covering five cutting edge issues  – health care, energy, immigration, education and reviving the economy – being broadcast prime-time five evenings each week on five different cable and broadcast TV networks.

I’ve also developed treatments for an Internet civic media website that would serve as a precursor to America’s Choice. If I don’t hear from Leslie Moonves, or from my high school classmate John Malone or Sumner Redstone or Mark Zuckerberg or Ted Turner or Mark Cuban or David Goldberg or Rupert Murdoch or Eric Schmidt, I will share these ideas with individuals and organizations that may be interested in advancing, producing or underwriting them.

If any ideas here prompt you to speak up one way or the other, your feedback is most welcome. I will try to incorporate thoughtful comments in Part II of this initial post. Also, I plan to open the site to regular posters with an interest (or antipathy) to civic media. Thanks for visiting and I hope to hear from you!

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