20th Anniversary of a Co-Intelligent Journalistic Breakthrough

This month, July 2011, is the 20th anniversary of one of the most remarkable journalistic initiatives I’ve ever seen — an innovation so cutting-edge that even the innovators did not recognize its world-shaking potential.

In July 1991, MACLEAN’S magazine — Canada’s glossy newsweekly, the equivalent of TIME and NEWSWEEK in the US — published 40 pages of coverage of a process that brought together a microcosm of diverse Canadian citizens to find common ground at a time of rising conflict in Canadian society. The three days of debate and dialogue among these twelve ordinary Canadians — who embodied the polarized views of their entire nation — make riveting reading. The conversations start out polite and exploratory, evolve into intense conflict as they focus on specifics, and then unexpectedly tumble into greater understanding and personal connection over a late dinner — which, after a final day of intense collaborative work, produce a profound consensus statement signed by them all.

MACLEAN’S called it “The People’s Verdict”. They published not only the final document, but a blow-by-blow account of the whole conversation; pictures and bios of all the participants (so you could pick your favorites and enemies and then, from your vicarious reader’s perspective, watch the drama unfold); and background information on how the participants were chosen, who the facilitators were, the rationale for how the whole thing was handled, and the history behind the controversial issues that were discussed.

Think about it: forty pages of coverage. Where else in mainstream media have you seen forty pages of coverage of anything?

  • You can read a brief overview of what happened here.  
  • My book THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY contains a short but dramatic narrative of the whole conversation, available free online here
  • Free downloadable PDFs of MACLEAN’S’ entire amazing coverage are available here

A decade ago I hired investigative reporter Larry Shook to find out what happened when MACLEAN’S did this exercise, and what they thought about it. Everyone he interviewed remembered the initiative quite vividly. Apparently “The People’s Verdict” and the accompanying one-hour documentary by CTV (Canadian Television) triggered many months of widespread dialogue across the country about Canada’s future. Politicians were drawn into the conversations and, realizing it was a sort of grassroots wildfire phenomenon, did what they could to cool the flames, and the impact of the initiative gradually waned. 

Perhaps most significantly, the editors at MACLEAN’S viewed the exercise as a very advanced focus group. They did not see it as a profound democratic innovation. I beg to differ. Having explored Wisdom Councils and Citizen Deliberative Councils for years, I see what MACLEAN’S did as an experiment in giving We the People a microphone in the highest forum in the land, and then giving them the tools to use that opportunity wisely. MACLEAN’S biggest mistake — an understandable error of omission — was to fail to do it again in 1992. And again in 1993. And again in 1994. 

Can you imagine what Canada would be like today if every year a microcosm of Canadian society* were engaged in powerful creative conversation about the state of their country and what they wanted to see done about it? And if their conversations and statement were as thoroughly publicized in major media as MACLEAN’S and CTV did in 1991? Every year most of those selected to participate in this powerful temporary citizen council would have heard what happened in the previous council, would have experienced what happened in the country since then, and would have strong feelings and opinions about what was right and wrong about all that. With proper planning and facilitation, their conversations would take off from there and provide a giant mirror through which the whole population could reflect on how they and their society was working.

How likely would it be that this one innovation — happening over and over, like elections happen over and over — would have a profound impact on national consciousness, on a population’s sense of “We the People” being able to see what’s happening and to push for something better? No special powers would have to be given to these ad hoc citizen councils beyond supporting their ability to talk well with each other (good process and facilitation) and make their views known to the entire country. 

The closest thing we have to this now is the chief executive giving an annual report, as the President of the U.S. does when delivering his (or someday, her) State of the Union address to Congress and the nation each year in January. But we all know that such speeches are primarily political, putting a PR spin on whatever is going on and promoting the agenda of whomever happens to be in charge. What we really need is an institution that has no political ax to grind, an entity that can “say it like it is” while truly representing the entire country or community it is speaking for. If experience is any guide, annual or semi-annual ad hoc citizen councils of this sort could perform this function admirably. 

We could wait for someone to pass Constitutional amendments to institutionalize this officially. Or we could do it now. Two great opportunities exist: 

  1. Any small group in a community can convene a Wisdom Council for their community, preferably with the intention of doing it at least every year. This has already been done in a number of communities in North America and Europe. Contact the Center for Wise Democracy for more information, news and support. 
  2. Any news media — print or broadcast, major or minor — or an alliance of independent journalists could do their own version of what MACLEAN’S did, but plan to do it every year. If TIME or John Stewart or some other significant national news outlet organized this — being very careful to be transparent and impartial in the convening, facilitation, and reportage — it would have a profound impact. 

To those who see journalism’s job as just reporting the facts, not convening conversations, I say that journalism’s greater job is to support democracy’s capacity for productive political discourse and decision-making. Too often “balanced objective reporting” means reporting the fact that a politician, pundit, corporate spokesperson or activist said X (which he or she did say) without providing the context necessary to evaluate how much of what they said was political “spin” and how much was substantive. Furthermore, too often “presenting both sides” just reinforces the society’s polarities without enabling all perspectives to talk their way to shared understandings and possibilities that would really serve the larger society.

These misinterpretations of the role of “objective” journalism are profoundly easy to manipulate. Consider: Which stories are chosen for coverage and feature? Which facts are chosen for inclusion? Spokespeople for political positions are chosen for their ability to entertain and do battle rather than for their ability to enlighten and find higher/deeper wisdom on behalf of the citizenry. This does not serve democracy well at all. 

I suggest that a higher version of journalism’s time-honored mission is to tease out the diverse views of society into creative interactions that generate stories of positive possibility which can be acted on. All those things can be reported on. The subsequent actions create results which also can be reported on. Those reports will generate diverse reflections which can then be repor
t
ed on — and then drawn into further conversations which can be reported on. I proposed this to the Journalism that Matters network in a new model of journalistic storytelling: see this chart and the imagineering story on pages 7-9 of this document

As we watch governments around the world functioning independently of the strong desires and views of the people they govern — and as we watch, around the world, civil society polarizing into ever more divided camps unable to come together on agendas of common benefit — and as we watch, around the world, corporate and other powerful special interests using scientific PR and massive funding to manipulate both governments and civil society — it becomes increasingly obvious that we need to create and empower an informed, thoughtful, coherent and wise voice of We the People — a voice that is truly of, by, and for the society as a whole.

That voice is almost entirely absent from current political discourse and activism. We need it now. Urgently.

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* One or two dozen citizens selected perhaps randomly instead of using the potentially manipulable scientific selection done by MACLEAN’S. A compromise solution involves creating a large pool — 200-1000 people — at random, gathering demographic information about them all, and then scientifically selecting a balanced group from that pool. A primary value of random selection is that, with adequate transparency, it resists manipulation by any special interest or power center.

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