Digital Citizen 2012

Digital Citizen builds on the new digital capabilities of television broadcasting, combined with the Internet’s advances in social engagement, to integrate citizen participation to an unprecedented degree in 2news coverage. Digital Citizen is made possible by media convergence, but our real concern is governance in a democratic society.
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It’s 2013 and Digital Citizen moves on to:

- Give the majority a platform for mass media policy dialogue
- Provide a way to connect a worried public to facilitators in times of crisis
- Create a process to help TV stations or programs promote themselves online
- Let viewers choose the topic/person/talent they want to see on TV

Road Trip! Driving from the RNC in Tampa, to the DNC in Charlotte, gave Solomon and Jessica a chance to reflect on news coverage of money in politics. If even experts don’t get it, shouldn’t the media help explain?

Click to watch

See more clips at Digital Citizen

From Guttenburg to Zuckerberg, new technologies have always been used by citizens to disrupt the political discourse. As we wrapped up our Digital Citizen effort to give citizens leverage over today’s election issues, I began to wonder how the citizens’ voice fared. Will 2012’s rich buffet of engagement tools make a dent in this year of anonymous funders and endless attack ads?

So I jumped at the chance to write an article on the topic for Qualcomm’s SPARK online magazine.

Now that our reporters are lined up, press passes secured and we are gearing up to go to Tampa and Charlotte for the 2012 Conventions, I wrote this first of two articles for PBS MediaShift, on how we got here. The second will come out after the conventions, describing how it went. Hurricane or no, here we go! See article at’s Mediashift

by Evelyn Messinger, August 23, 2012

For two weeks every four years, the media and the politicos gather for the insider’s ritual of selecting a presidential candidate. Really, it’s an opportunity for them to party, schmooze and show the special interests, who support their cause, a good time. The role of the citizen in these pageants is, at best, as passive consumer.

So, what happens when you toss in a pair of citizen reporters, and put them on national television asking the one question that conventioneers don’t want to answer: What are you doing to get money out of politics?

We launched the Digital Citizen experiment in July 2012 to find out. The big idea is to find citizen journalists to cover the 2012 elections from a citizen’s point of view, with a focus on an issue we know Americans care about: the corrupting influence of money in politics. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from May found that “most Americans [75%], no matter what their political party, believe there is too much money in politics …” The poll showed that 76 percent “feel that the amount of money in elections has given rich people more influence than other Americans.”

The first experiment will be a series of reports from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 27-30 and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., September 3-6. The past months have been spent locating partners and finding potential reporters. We are creating a process that will reveal whether the citizens’ voice can make a difference in the national dialogue, even — especially — when the political and media powers want to ignore what the people have to say.

But first, we had to find and train the reporters.


We realized early on that only by combining outreach to a significant number of people with the leveraging power of national television broadcasting could we hope to find our citizen reporters. First, Link TV, the national non-commercial television channel committed to informing Americans about the world, was willing to take the chance of putting real citizens on TV. In many ways this is the boldest move of all, and it had to be a small, independent and feisty channel like Link that would be willing to run with it. Next, United Republic, whose mission is to address the corrupting political influence of money and has more than 250,000 subscribers, jumped on board. We used an app adapted from the Personal Democracy Forum’s that allows people to post, rate and share videos. The app was embedded on a United Republic page, and scores of aspiring citizen reporters posted and promoted videos of themselves, telling us why we should send them to the 2012 Conventions.

But trying to find citizen TV reporters posed serious unknowns. We don’t know of any previous attempt to use social networking to surface potential citizen journalists for a national broadcasting outfit. Would anybody show up to post videos? Would those who did post videos “work” on TV? And, could citizen journalism go big time?

Answers: Yes, yes, and stay tuned …


71,000 page views, 2200 votes, plus thousands of Tweets and Facebook “likes” later, we have found our reporters: Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, Neb., blogs at, and WNYC’s It’s A Free Country. He tells us, “I am an avowed Centrist, because both parties have sold out to special interests, rather than listening to the will of the American people.” Jessica Eise, a globe-trotting videographer and sometimes travel reporter, hails from Kansas City, Mo. She says, “Like many Americans, I’m struggling to find employment. We need to battle against corruption and fight for what is right for our country.”

A key part of the deal is that they will be trained by our staff, led by radio and TV producer Shia Levitt. Her goal is to help them walk the razor’s edge between legitimate citizen outrage and productive reporting.

They are studying up on the issues for the 3-hour training, which will range from practicing stand-ups to the art of asking civil questions to the secrets of follow-ups. Levitt will only know if her tutelage worked when we get to the convention floor.


In fact, for all the ballyhoo about “citizen journalism” and “engagement” over the last few years, there’s precious little to show for it, on the page or on the screen. Some bloggers have risen to prominence as journalists, and all bloggers are in one sense crowd-sourced, becoming representative voices for a point of view shared by many. People do vote with their clicks, alerting journalists to what the crowd finds of interest at any given moment. But the very nature of this process ensures that fleeting interest is made much of, while enduring interest — the many clicks scattered among cat video likes and satirical tweet shares — is lost even to the most attentive observers. No wonder media coverage has degenerated into flashes of scandal and outrage at the expense of the larger issues people insist they care most about.
The ‘Elephant’ in the Election Booth

Nonetheless, we are very clear that the mission of Digital Citizen — to expand the voice of the citizen in policy dialogue for the digital age — is more than fulfilled by the issue of the corrupting influence of money in politics. As Steven Dikowitz, one of our competitors and a member of our Citizens’ Editorial Board put it, money is “the elephant in the room” where media and politics intersect. A July 2012 Gallup Poll revealed that reducing corruption in the federal government was second only to focusing on jobs among Americans’ concerns.

So we are focusing on a subject that is owned by the people. After all, politicians who live by donations are not likely to meaningfully confront the issue without public pressure, and the public has a shrinking number of avenues through which to address their elected representatives, despite the growing list of complaints. Nor can most journalists, who must be careful what they ask lest they get blackballed by politicians or, worse, censored by the huge media corporations they work for (which reap tremendous benefits from the campaign finance system), be relied upon to push the issue.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, combined with the politicians’ reluctance to reveal the fonts from which their campaign financing flows, there is no good way to source money in politics. But if you “follow the money” as to where most of it flows, you find yourself at the door of the media. A May 2012 investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review took a hard look at the recipients of this largess. By law, “the campaigns get the lowest rates in a given ad class, [but] they do tend not to buy the cheapest class, which is subject to ‘immediate pre-emption,’” while Super PACs and issue groups, “are not entitled to the same low rates.” It all adds up to a bonanza — the article quotes industry estimates that “$2.5-$3.3 billion will be directed to local spot advertising” — a new record. This is quite an incentive to forget to question the campaign finance system.

With only four days until the Republican Convention begins, our reporters are tanned, rested and ready to march into the maw of the prime-time Conventions extravaganza. We, the production team, are exhausted, hurried and worried, up to our eyeballs in logistics, stretching our dollars until they squeak. We hear there’s a hurricane heading for Tampa and are packing our camera raincoats. But it’s worth every bead of sweat and storm-surge: We are using the lure of appearing on TV to find new journalists who have no stake in the system as it is. Because they represent the many people who have nothing to lose but the integrity of their leaders, we hope to leverage this issue into national prominence.

So, while other TV journalists at the conventions will be on the lookout for scandal and bombast, the Link TV Citizen Reporters will be more interested in the special treatment of special interests, the workings of Citizens United and Super PACs, the costs and tolls of attack ads. Will 2012 prove to be the year that citizens gain a stronger voice in the policy dialogue that shapes our nation? Stay tuned.

The three posts below are episodes of the VOICES UP series from the RNC & the DNC:

Money + Politcs = Attack Ads…but at the DNC, we find one race that could turn out to be different.

Click to watch

"501c4, 501c4, 501c4" : Jessica Eise ponders dark money at the RNC

Click to play video…

All 10 Digital Citizen five-minute reports from the RNC and the DNC are now online. Citizen Reporters Jessica Eise and Solomon Kleinsmith, with a laser focus on money in politics, explore everything from Lobbyists to Unions to Attack Ads.

A chronicle of meetings between Occupy and Tea Party members across the US, updated daily.

The American media and political establishments rely on conflict for their own prosperity. If you are a Tea Party conservative or an Occupy progressive, these institutions want to divide and conquer you.

But if you see the potential power of a citizenry united for change…or if you are just curious…we invite you to join us.

Digital Citizen prepares to launch our online widget, and finds accord among Tea Party and Occupy activists.

• The goal of Digital Citizen is to establish a precedent for civilized and productive citizen engagement that will expands participatory democracy in the Digital Age.
• The key objective of Digital Citizen is to give Americans a way to leverage the issues they care about into the mass media discourse where policy is shaped.

…then Digital Citizen 2012 wants you. Please answer our simple survey and help us create Digital Citizen 2012! 

Originally published at PBSMediaShift 10/3/11

In 2012, two tidal waves will reconfigure the American electoral system and the news media that cover it. A tsunami made of money will buoy up the structure of entrenched political power, while a huge wave of personal technology will disrupt it.

I can predict both of these events with certainty because they’ve happened every election year over the last couple of decades. Still, the changes in 2012 may be dramatic. Angry citizens around the world have been using a potent combination of mobile phones, social networking and broadcast television to upend established political orders. Now it’s Americans who are angry, and this election could spark a new level of activism leveraged by these same tools. At the same time, this will be the first general election since the so-called “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision, which tossed out the last vestiges of regulations limiting campaign financing. Among other effects, this will translate into a record numbers of attack ads next fall. Taken together, these two changes may profoundly affect our democracy, and they deserve a closer look.

Bad News for News

In June of this year, headlined, "Moody’s Predicts Record Political Ad Spending for TV Station Groups in 2012." In one breathless run-on sentence, the article explained: “Broadcasters benefited from a Jan. 2010 Supreme Court decision [known as Citizens United] that effectively ended spending caps for political ads, so, unlike in 2004 and 2008, the presidential election next year will happen without limits on campaign spending by corporations or unions.”

There has not been much in the way of analysis of how the astronomical levels of campaign cash will affect the news ecosystem. Because the new funds will enrich local TV stations, one could argue that this has nothing to do with news reporting. Perhaps all local TV boats will rise with the tide, including the news dinghy.

But the relationship may be more complex than that, and there have been intriguing signs and portents in recent years: Sarah Palin is famous for advising a beleaguered Tea Party candidate to speak only to Fox News, and other candidates are increasingly avoiding interviews. Both reporters and citizens have relied on Town Hall meetings as moments where unscripted hints can surface, but ever since the disastrous Town Hall meetings in the summer of 2009, Democrats are increasingly replacing Town Hall meetings with conference calls. Now, candidates of both parties have retreated behind a “conference-call wall,” diminishing democracy in the process.

It’s not surprising that candidates would rather not speak to troublesome reporters or a querulous public, who are in one sense their natural enemies. But now, with their new wealth, will candidates reject news appearances, as they have Town Hall meetings, using ads as a kind of counter-programming? Will attack ads begin to look like faux news reports in attempts to offset reporting with well-financed propaganda?

"It may take a cycle of awful attack ads to realize that something more needs to be legislated," said Seth Korman, a lawyer and legal writer, who nonetheless cautioned that it’s unclear whether "courts will look favorably on new prohibitions on political speech." Korman noted in the Rutgers Law Record that the Citizens United decision “expands the legal definition of the press” by granting rights once reserved for the news media to all corporations. The Supreme Court’s thinking, said Korman, is that “everyone should be able to editorialize.” But, as he pointed out in a related article in the Huffington Post, non-profits, including non-profit news organizations, remain restricted in their “ability to ‘influence legislation’ or ‘participate’ in a political campaign.” He asked, “If the bar on free-speech restrictions has been so lowered for some corporations, why must it remain for others?”

Attack of the Attack Ads

One troubling aspect of the coming expansion of attack ads is that, because their content is protected by the First Amendment, they are less regulated than other forms of commercial speech. In 2004, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched a series of attack ads against presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats. The Federal Election Commission later fined the group, and its liberal counterpart, because they “crossed the line with overtly partisan 2004 campaign activities,” as the L.A. Times reported in 2006. These groups were not censured for what we might call lying, but for “failing to register as political committees.” With the passage of Citizens United, the rules on which that judgment was based no longer apply.

There are regulations that prohibit lying in political ads, but the laws are overseen by an alphabetic welter of federal agencies — the FEC, the FCC, the FTC — and by state regulatory agencies. Not surprisingly, regulations often diverge or lag; most agencies are only just beginning to grapple with the Citizens United Decision (see this on the FEC, and bookmark the site Election Law Blog, the best place to track the evolving situation).

The FEC, for one, is staffed by political appointees with conflicting political agendas. Typically, the punishment for lying in political ads is a fine, levied months or years after the election, providing small comfort to the candidate victimized by false statements. For example, in 2009 the creator of an untrue attack ad on the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, aired in 2007 paid the city $2,500 to settle a lawsuit. In June of this year, the North Carolina Republican Party issued a formal apology to a representative who was narrowly defeated for an untrue campaign mailer sent in November 2010.

Following the passage of Citizens United, Radio Broadcasting Report, the online media industry site, ran a long article titled "Broadcaster’s Liability After Citizens United." It strived to soothe worried media execs by laying out exactly how the process works when “faced with allegations of libel, slander, fraud or misrepresentation regarding a public figure.”

The article explained that the FCC’s “standard for broadcaster responsibility for truth or falsity in the context of political matter [is that] each licensee may exercise its own judgment as how best to serve the public interest by presenting contrasting views…” The article advised its readers to “ask the sponsor of the ad for justification. If the response appears reasonable, the Commission and the courts do not require that the broadcaster be the guarantor of its truth.”

Back in 2007, wrote a thorough piece on the legal ramifications for attack ads that stretch the truth, citing a number of examples from the “handful of states” that have laws on the books prohibiting lies in political ads. In two of three cases, the perpetrators were acquitted; in one case, the guilty party “paid no real penalty for the false ad, except for some unfavorable publicity.” The article concluded, somewhat ruefully, “All this should tell voters that — legally — it’s pretty much up to them to sort out who’s lying and who’s not in a political campaign.”

'Truth is the Underdog'

If it’s up to the voter to figure out who is lying, then both the electorate and the news reporters they rely on may be spending an awful lot of time in 2012 sorting through the mess. For those hoping that substantive issues will get a fair hearing, this is more bad news. Attack ads are already much covered by news; now they threaten to swallow up increasing portions of the news hole. Reporting on attack ad controversies is cheaper and easier than producing original stories, or attempting to interview recalcitrant candidates. With many mainstream news outlets already weakened by a failing old revenue model and an invasion of partisan reporting masquerading as news, can we expect coverage of attack ads to crowd out issue reporting?

"I advocate class warfare as journalism," said Bob Calo, senior lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, with his tongue only partly in his cheek. "Journalists are no longer trusted by the public, who think we are just part of the propaganda game. We should be helping the public differentiate between propaganda and facts." Calo, who produced magazine shows at ABC and NBC before joining the Berkeley faculty, said, “A reasonable risk would be to declare your loyalty to the underserved middle class. That means the politicians are your adversary.”

He takes the threat of attack ads seriously, if no less acerbically. “Journalists are smart, but the problem is, you are going up against even smarter people who work in public relations. Truth is the underdog in American political speech.”

This is where public media, and the tsunami of public engagement, might come to the rescue. A second article in this series will look at these forces in the 2012 election. Watch this space for more.