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NBC's Chuck Todd Gathers Citizen Questions for Obama Presser

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In another example of traditional journalists experimenting with participatory media, Chuck Todd, NBC's White House Correspondent, is gathering questions from citizens in preparation for Tuesday's prime time press conference with President Barack Obama.

Todd is soliciting question ideas from blog commenters, both through Newsvine.com and a plug on MSNBC's First Read, and he will also look over some of the top questions voted by citizens at Ask The President, (which I just launched in a partnership with The Nation, PDF and The Washington Times). Addressing Newsvine readers, Todd explained:

I'd like question ideas from you for the president next Tuesday night... But I don't necessarily want the question ideas DIRECTLY from you, I want to hear what your neighbors and less politics-obsessed friends and family want asked... I know every reporter claims they are listening to you and I'm not going to promise that I'm going to use a direct question but I do view these prime time press conferences as vehicles for the public...

In response to Ask The President, which enables a more accountable process for transparent voting and question submission by video and text, Todd emailed me asking us to "send ideas" his way. "I'm soliciting question ideas from a wide variety of sources and do want to ask a 'kitchen table' question on Tuesday," he added.

To be crystal clear, neither Todd nor NBC have signed up as formal partners with Ask The President. (Our coalition now spans newspapers, magazines, blogs, non-partisan organizations and large membership groups, but still no television outlets.) And as Todd stressed to his readers, he is not promising to use a citizen question on Tuesday. USA Today also solicited questions for Obama from readers on Monday, though there is no suggestion that the exercise will inform the paper's contact with the White House.

Simply opening up the public discussion of how the media questions the President, however, already helps advance more accountability and transparency in media-government relations. In my new article on The People's Press Conference, I argue that even if the press does not initially rush to use citizen questions, these public discussions can demonstrate "trends, input and ideas to guide journalists on an ongoing basis." And while it is a fine gesture for journalists to casually invite reader questions, as Todd and ABC's Jake Tapper have recently done via blogs and Twitter, we have the platforms to engage much broader, deeper participation:

Some Washington reporters have begun informally soliciting a wider range of questions for their work... David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, and Jake Tapper, ABC's senior White House correspondent, are experimenting with the micromessage site Twitter to gather input for their interviews with government officials. On March 3 Tapper tapped a bulletin to his Twitter network, in the informal style common on the site, inviting questions for the daily briefings: "didnt get to it today but consider this a standing invite for good q suggestions for gibbs."


These forays are positive, if they reflect a genuine receptivity to deeper citizen input in journalism and government accountability. Yet they offer no reliable metrics for pooling or assessing public priorities. They are not transparent, either, since there is no unified structure displaying how many people drafted questions, or what other citizens think of them, or whether a reporter's selected questions are representative of those submitted. As a largely one-way circuit, such efforts are less likely to foster public debate or spark sustained citizen participation.

I think using open submission and voting platforms -- as President-elect Obama did during the transition, but not since -- is superior:

Few traditional mechanisms, however, capture the public's active interests--empowering people to draft their own ideas, concerns and questions from scratch. Generating and debating new questions is fundamentally different from picking among a scripted menu ... And virtually no traditional media mechanisms couple that original, individual production with transparent, national voting. Doing both can broaden the issues under public discussion while weighting their priority according to public input--a useful service for our body politic.

We don't know if the press or the White House will begin opening up this week, but if the public keeps pressing, it should only be a matter of time.

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To submit and vote on potential questions for President Obama through our project, which has already gathered over 28,000 votes in five days, visit Ask The President now.

To learn more about the project, check out these articles from The Nation and The Washington Times. (This post originally ran in The Nation.)

To read a response to some input and criticism of the project, see this blog comment.

And to see a YouTuber taking up the challenge, check out this new video: