Power to the People
From Rebuilding Civil Society. A Symposium from: The New Democrat, volume 7, number 2 March/April 1995.
Wisconsin's We the People Project
One of the most compelling moments on We the People, Wisconsin's televised town hall meetings, came during a recent gubernatorial debate. Infuriated by the candidates' attempts to duck the incendiary issue of property-tax reform, one citizen questioner stood up and demanded on live television that they present specific proposals in writing two weeks before the election.
"And they did it," said David Iverson, executive producer of We the People. "Citizens can demand accountability in a way that journalists can't."
Giving citizens an opportunity to demand accountability and arming them with the information they need to get it are the broad aims of the program, which has won two regional Emmy awards since it began three years ago. Launched in collaboration with Minnesota public television in 1992, We the People now comprises five partners: Wisconsin public television and public radio; the Wisconsin State Journal; Wood Communications, a public relations firm; and, most recently, Madison CBS affiliate WISC.
We the People has completed nine programs on issues such as health care, gambling, youth, and tax reform. From a list of concerns that arise in voter focus groups, the media partners choose one issue and report exhaustively on it for several weeks prior to a 60- to 90-minute televised town hall meeting. The meetings, carried live on public television, public radio, and WISC, give citizens recruited from the focus groups a chance to hear opposing views on each issue and then question the officials and candidates who espouse them. Some 2,000 citizens have already participated.
"Citizens ask difficult questions," Iverson said, citing an inner-city teenager-forbidden to sit on her front porch because her mother feared drive-by shootings-who pointedly asked a candidate how exactly he planned to make her neighborhood safe.
"The project started with a real belief that we need to provide people with an opportunity to participate. That's part of our job, and it's not enough just to cover things," Iverson said. "Our problem isn't so much apathy as a feeling of impotence."
The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation last year began a national initiative to promote similar partnerships among local print and broadcast journalists and to encourage them to reconnect with their communities.
"People who believe they have some control over their own destiny are most likely to vote," said Jim Wood, of the Wood Communications Group.
"Something like this makes people believe that their opinions do have worth."
We the People, c/o Wood Communications Group
700 Regent Street
Madison, Wis. 53715
Sarah Jackson-Han is an editor of The New Democrat.
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