Faking a town hall -- a guide to what's real and what's not

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A humbly dressed man stands to speak, his rough hands gripping the back of a wooden bench, his chin up and eyes on the horizon. Fellow townspeople look on with respect.

Norman Rockwell called the painting “Freedom of Speech.” Love the scene or dismiss it as schmaltz, you can see real live town meetings every spring in New England. Sometimes they even look like the Rockwell. Henry David Thoreau praised New England town meetings as “the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.” My town of Plymouth, Mass., holds one annually. The night can be inspiring. And tiring.

Then there’s the ersatz town-hall meeting – the event appropriated by politicians, pitchmen, and business managers to put a gloss of “we the people” on what is really a spin session. Fake town halls and their cousins, the “listening tour,” have been all the rage in recent years. They can be identified by the following features: (1) Preselected questions from an improbably diverse set of attendees; (2) audience plants, aka "shills," "friendlies," Astroturf; (3) made-for-TV dramatic potential.

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Sometimes a hostile attendee gets in, such as during those town-hall shouting matches last month over healthcare reform. A tough question need not be a bad thing if it produces a good sound bite (see Barney Frank Aug. 18: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”). Most questions, however, are screened: “Can you tell us more about your vision for our glorious future?” or “Would the 'Millionaire Miracle Method' make a schlub like me as rich as you?”

Great question. Glad you asked.

Even when a friendly is not underhanding softballs, true give-and-take is rare at fake town halls. After all, Mr. or Ms. Wonderful commands the spotlight, holds the microphone, and was prepped by handlers. How likely is it that an ordinary Jane or Joe is going to use this moment to commit social or career suicide with an impolitic question?

There are very few genuine people’s voice moments in life. Voting is one. Next on a sliding scale comes a bona fide scientific opinion survey. And that’s about it. Focus groups? There’s a Roshomon quality to them: Eight or 10 strangers opine while snarfing down free M&Ms, and everybody watching has a different takeaway.

Before people stopped sending actual letters, there was a thing called Letters to the Editor, though gadflies and pressure groups often dominated this forum. In the Internet era, there are online comments. But with all due respect to the “wisdom of crowds”: whoa, people. Comments on hot-button issues like race or the Middle East can be pretty depressing.

It is a powerful thing to say you are listening to the general public. The fake town hall gives the illusion of inclusion. The Olde New England version is the real deal because towns that hold them don’t have a mayor. No one prowls center stage. Ordinary folk stand, grip the back of a chair, and address everyone else. They’re fairly close to being the actual deciders of things.

In Plymouth, the oldest New England town and now a fast-growing one, well-meaning citizens have proposed scrapping the town-council form of government because of the efficiencies a mayoral system could bring. The proposal has been defeated up to now. Some day it will probably pass, which would mean the end of an era.
Would there still be town-hall meetings?

Great question. Glad you asked.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. His "Open Source" column appears in the Monitor weekly. You can read it first there.

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Whatever you think of town hall forums, the national debate over healthcare reform has revealed a crucial problem for President Obama in his quest for change: a looming generation gap.

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