As news media across the country report on the "August revolt" at Democratic town hall meetings, many don't seem to take a critical look at how the meetings are being conducted, or to offer alternatives.
In Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough (1998), Davis "Buzz" Merritt, one of the founders of the civic journalism movement, wrote that "[public/civic journalism] moves beyond the limited mission of telling the news to a broader mission of helping public life go well, and out of that imperative. When public life is going well, true deliberation occurs and leads to potential solutions."
From that public perspective, we might ask what types of coverage could help public life go well and facilitate deliberation. Are just the stories of disruption and shouting getting most of the headlines? Do these town hall meetings have ground rules? Are there instances of town hall meeting with basic ground rules and facilitation? What might be the role of the press? What are the alternatives?
First, Slate.com's Explainer answers the question, "do town halls have rules," with a resounding no. Political town halls are generally informal gatherings where constituents can have their voice heard. The process is up to the organizer. Town hall meetings are the descendants of New England "town meetings." Since the 1600s, town governments of New England have held highly regimented meetings for decision-making.
For some instances of town hall meetings on health care reform that had ground rules or different formats, see:
- Editorial Board blog at DemocratAndChronicle.com Rochester, NY area
- Front page news story in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, "Strong but civil discussion marks health care event," complete with "Speaking Rules" sidebar
- Markey to share George Washington's 'Rules of Civility' at meeting, the Coloradoan.com
- "Walz and Sebelius find 'Teletownhall' success: a useful health-care discussion without chants, shouts," MinnPost.com
For more insight on consensus building alternatives, see:
- "Health Care Reform and a Plea for Civility" column in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Jim Gallaway profiles Mark DeMoss, a Republican Southern Baptist who founded the bipartisan organization, civilityproject.org
- Martin Carcasson, director of Colorado State University's Center for Public Deliberation, "Dealing with High Emotion and 'Staged Anger': Tips for Legislators"-- post with analysis and suggestions on the National Center for Dialogue and Deliberation listserv.
- Listen to Martin Carcasson and Peter Levine on the NPR/WHYY-FM call-in program, "Radio Times"--podcast
- Members of the National Dialogue and Deliberation respond on blogs and more.
- New York Times op-ed, "Town Halls by Invitation" by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.
- Lawrence Susskind, director of Harvard's Public Disputes program and founder of the Consensus Building Institute points asks: "Would you throw someone with no diplomatic experience into a high-level peace-making situation? I hope not. They'd get eaten alive. Would you throw someone into a red or blue leadership role who had no formal training in negotiation or consensus building? We do it all the time! Legal, political, administrative, or corporate experience is not necessarily consensus-building experience. See "How Should You Respond to the noisy health care reform critics" and "Hey, C'mon why can't Red and Blues agree" on Susskind's blog.
Mary Beth Callie
CCJIG chair, 2009-10
Regis University, Denver