Talk of the Town Hall

How the media covered yesterday's online town hall

As we noted yesterday, Barack Obama’s online town hall prompted some interesting questions from the in-person audience, and (to a lesser extent) from the Web submissions. While the write-ups of Tuesday night’s press conference disappointingly focused on Obama’s tone, it was heartening to see that the coverage of the town hall was a bit more substantive.

Overall the coverage was divided between noting the “historic”, “pioneering” nature of the event and reporting on the actual exchange. According to the BBC, more than 92,000 people submitted more than 100,000 queries, and 3.6 million votes were cast to decide the most popular questions.

The question that made the most headlines—whether Obama would consider legalizing marijuana to stimulate the economy—was noted for the president’s joking reply: No, no, he wouldn’t. But the two best questions came from members of the audience who were reflecting on their personal experiences. First, the owner of an engineering company asked whether Obama would consider unbundling government contracts to allow small business to compete for those jobs (answer: sort of). Then, a public school teacher from Philadelphia asked the president to define charter schools (answer: broadly) and teacher achievement (answer: not by tests alone).

Overall, the White House earned a passing grade for its foray into the hyper-digital age. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder awarded points for the smooth online stream, but Wired deemed the town hall a “useful experiment with interactivity,” while pointing out that the format did not force the president beyond his comfort zone:

How exactly would it have differed if this town hall were to be entirely scripted by the White House? They would have touched many of the same subjects — health care, veterans, outsourcing — and Obama would have given his regular stump points. That’s more or less what happened.

Before the town hall, Wired looked at how the open questions application on was operating, and noticed some funny business: “The internet is a great tool for harnessing the wisdom of crowds — and also the idiocy of trolls. … So far, the trolls are doing OK in at least one area: flooding the page with questions about legalizing pot — a marginally important debate at most times, and a totally trivial one at a time of global economic catastrophe.”

In fact, the pot question led The New York Times’s Kate Phillips down an interesting alley about the transparency of the online forum. Phillips reported that the so-called trolls behind the query were NORML and other advocacy groups who organized their members to “smart-mob” the site. And, the particular special interest (pot) behind their effort resulted in coverage that amounted to a chorus of giggling school girls. “Tee-hee, he asked about pot,” they tittered.

But other groups were behind other questions proposed in the forum. TechPresident’s Micah Sifry told the Times that and Organizing for America also tapped their members to vote for and contribute questions. And while many readers may not have known about the question-lobbying that went on behind the scenes, Sifry pointed out that the digital forum was still preferable to no forum: “I think there’s arguably more transparency to an online process like this one than to other systems for inviting and collecting public input.”

So, in a highly McLuhanesque way, the medium became the story of the day, which is fine for the town hall’s debut. But, in the future, here’s hoping that the president, the press, and the public treat these events, assuming there’ll be more, as opportunities to keep government accountable, which means more good questions and shorter, more substantive answers. And maybe we can have a serious conversation about pot, too.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.