Presidential Press Conference, Pro-Am Edition

An idea whose time has come…came this morning. A coalition of journalistic outlets— among them The Nation, The Washington Times, the Personal Democracy Forum,, and Color of Change—launched “Ask The President,” an initiative aimed at including citizen questions in presidential press conferences.

The process is straightforward: users submit questions they want President Obama to answer, and other users vote on the question they most want to hear asked—one vote per IP address (though users can attract other votes for a question they want asked by linking and embedding it on other sites). This generates, in turn, a list of most-popular questions. The coalition of participating outlets then selects a credentialed journalist to attend the next press conference; that journalist, based on his or her judgment and on what’s already been addressed at the conference, will select one of the questions from the list to ask Obama.

The journalist in question would be there solely to represent the citizens’ query; he or she, per Ask The President’s plan, wouldn’t take question time away from the standing pool of White House reporters. Which means that, for the initiative to work, President Obama will have to agree to take part in it—to call on the citizen-representative journalist in addition to his traditional-journalist slate.

But, then, this is a president, of course, who has pledged to make his administration “the most open and transparent in history”; he’d be hard-pressed not to go along with the initiative. “The East Room press conferences are among the most exclusive and least democratic public gatherings in American politics,” Ari Melber writes in a Nation article introducing the initiative; “the White House controls who attends and who gets called on.”

So the coalition is appealing directly to the Obama administration to admit and call on the journalist armed with citizen questions. Obama has repeatedly pledged a more innovative, interactive government. Wide public engagement in “Ask the President”—and strong political support for Obama’s participation—can make that pledge a reality.

Well, it can start to make that pledge a reality. My question for Obama: how quickly will you pledge your participation?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.