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Did I Give Trump the Idea to put Citizen Bloggers in the White House Press Room?

Listening to the media spin more silliness a few months ago, I vented to then President-elect Donald Trump in a Tweet:

Since then, I saw this news article which included this bit:

Talk radio hosts and bloggers could be given greater access to official White House press briefings once the Trump administration takes office, under a highly irregular proposal being floated that may also remove briefings from the West Wing.

And this morning on Fox News, Newt Gingrich proposed that maybe they ought to allow private citizens to participate, maybe in a manner akin to town halls.

Shooting my idea over to the president a few months ago makes me wonder if I gave Trump this idea, but with all the tweets he receives, it seems unlikely he actually saw mine.  Maybe we’ll just chalk it up to ‘great minds think alike.’

Since a shake-up might be in the works on this score, and on extremely doubtful basis that Trump saw my first Tweet and would be interested in having me flesh out this idea further, I did some more thinking.

The freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution for a reason.  Let’s have another look at that language:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Now, to hear the modern media talk (and secularists and leftists in general), the reason the framers put the freedom of speech and the press in the Constitution is to serve as a check and balance on the government.  We’ve all heard the slogan, “speak truth to power.”  I don’t think they are wrong in this, but I would point out that if this is indeed the basis for the freedom of the press, it is also the basis for the freedom of religion.  Not only is freedom of religion in the first sentence of the first amendment to the constitution, but it is actually listed first in that sentence.  Nonetheless, liberals and leftists have cheered every restriction on religion and chafed at every inconvenience put on the press.

I would submit that the common thread to the entire first amendment, going beyond the idea of providing a ‘check and balance,’ is that the right and power to provide that ‘check and balance’ extends to each individual.  Except for the mention of the ‘press’ in this amendment, there is nothing in it to suggest it refers to any kind of group, community, or corporate entity.  (Bear that in mind when you’re reading the 2nd Amendment, too, my friend. CONTEXT MATTERS.)  In short, the right to serve as a ‘check and balance’ on government power is reserved to every citizen.  So, why should only a select group of individuals have the ability to question and challenge the most powerful people in the land?  Why not every citizen?

I don’t think it is difficult to understand that when a ‘select group’ becomes the prime interrogators of the powerful, this ‘select group’ themselves obtain a power that is limited to them and restricted from the rest of us.  This power is apt to be abused.  If there is anything that I have learned over the last twenty years, it is that the media itself needs a ‘check and balance.’  I am not talking about depriving them of their special status, carved right into the Constitution.  I’m talking about raising everyone else back up to that same special status–carved just as deeply in the Constitution, and in the same sentence!

It is clear to me that the ‘press’ has lost its way.  It cannot be trusted.  They complain about ‘fake news’ even as they dispense it.  Their priorities are not my priorities.  The questions they ask are not the things I want to know more about, but since only they get to ask the questions, they set the agenda.  Their power must be checked, and opening up the government to average citizens as opposed to only allowing ideologues masquerading as ‘objective journalists’ is a good start.

In this mass media environment, flooded with content from virtually every corner, some of it deliberately fake, with other material unsubstantiated (at that point) rumor, it is hard to know what to believe about anything.  However, it is hard to believe the republic can survive if people do not have reliable information that they can trust.  If they do not have actual facts to base their views on, this will inevitably lead to more power being centralized in the hands of the people who do have those facts, putting us at their mercy.  If the election of Donald Trump means anything, it means that millions and millions of people do not wish to be at anyone‘s mercy.  Not the government’s.  And not the media’s.

In principle, I firmly believe giving ordinary citizens direct access to the Trump administration and every Federal bureaucracy in order to interrogate it themselves is the way to go.  ASAP.  Yet, there seem to me to be several pragmatic problems, which I’d like to deal briefly with.

First of all, there is the question of bias.  You can hear the liberals now:  “But the people asking the questions will be biased!”  HYPOCRITES.   The people asking the questions are already biased.  One of the reasons they are a pox on our democracy is because they pretend they have no bias.  If they were honest about their prejudices, we might be able to analyze what they are saying more fairly.  But they are not honest.  So, bringing in private citizens doesn’t change anything on this score.  This problem needs to be addressed, but as it is a real problem in either scenario, it cannot be used for or against either.

Second of all, there is the question of the selection of citizens.  Obviously, you cannot have 100,000,000 shouting questions at a White House briefing.  Even in a perfect universe, this could not happen.  But any narrowing process is going to be vulnerable to the accusation that the process was weighted somehow, which leads to the same toxic doubt we have about the ‘press’ genuinely discharging its duty to serve as a ‘check and balance.’  The only conceivable way to avoid this is to do a lottery.  Citizens interested in asking questions of the government submit their names into a pile, from which, say, 30 names are randomly drawn.   But even this process will be open to the charge that it is ‘rigged.’  Still, I think its the only way.

The number of names can be expanded by allowing people to choose to ‘interrogate’ any Federal agency, and not just the White House.  For example, a person submitting their name for the drawing could list their top 3 choices:  The White House, the Department of Defense, and the Treasury.  Only once the list is filled at each agency do they stop drawing names.   There are probably some agencies out there that some people would prefer to question even over quizzing the DoD, and if they are one of the only 5 people to list them as one of their choices, the drawing would continue until their names were drawn and they were matched to the empty slot in that agency.

Done this way, I would bet you could involve several thousand ordinary citizens in the process of holding our government accountable.  Given the unruly and massive scope of the Federal government right now, maybe it would be tens of thousands.  Maybe some of the agencies that presently operate with hardly any citizen oversight at all will suddenly have a handful of citizens providing the scrutiny needed to keep them honest.

Would the organization charged with administering this process be private or public?  Many of my liberal counterparts believe that if it is public, its going to be fair and honest.  I lean the other way:  if its public, its more likely to be gamed by insiders who know how to milk the system.  Its easier to hold private organizations accountable because if people don’t like their product, you can simply stop buying it.  But we are all forced to continue paying for the ‘public’ system, whether we like it or not, and it takes years and several elections to make progress–if progress is ever made at all.  But, due to how intricately tied this process is to the actual purpose of being involved in some way with the Federal government, it may be that the only way to do it is to organize it through the Federal government.

This is like the fox guarding the hen house.

I don’t really know which would be the best way to go.  I do think, however, that maximum transparency will go a long way to easing concerns.  On the ‘lottery’ proposal, it should not be hard to provide this.  Every citizen’s name and submission, including their preferences, and the available slots at every agency is public record.  It is just a simple drawing after that and an algorithm that matches people in order of preferences with available slots.  Surely it must be possible to find a way to appease us that the drawing itself was random.

There is a third item, which raises even more substantive practical problems.

One of the things that the ‘media’ has that private citizens do not have is access to funds and the wherewithal to really dig into things, research them, and analyze them.  One of the reasons the big news corporations became big and prominent is simply because they had the ability to commit resources to paying journalists, lawyers, investigators, and cameramen to do the job they did.  They had the ability to set up radio and television stations.  They had the ability to pay people to make it their full time job to go find out what was necessary to daily harass our government.

The internet and the ever increasing technical expertise of private citizens has eased some of this, but there is still no substitute for the fact that anyone who is selected is probably not going to have the resources to do the job the way it needs to be done.  This is in part a criticism of the Federal government itself:  if it is so big it cannot be monitored by average citizens, it is too big.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the people selected are not likely to have the time and resources, almost by definition.  So, if we think this is important, we’re going to have to find a way to ensure that if their names are drawn, they are also given the time and resources.  This is fraught with new problems.  If the government itself gives the stipend, we’re right back at the problem of the fox guarding the hen house.  Here, though, if the citizens were sponsored by fellow citizens, we know darn well that corporations are going to want to ‘sponsor’ their share of folks, and it may be that the citizens are as beholden to their sponsors as Rachel Maddow is to her employer.

Here again, against all my instincts, the only way we might be able to do this is to manage it through the Federal government itself, with the citizen’s salary compensated through tax dollars.  It may be a small price to pay in order to bring the media (and the government itself) to heel, however.

I know what I’m asking.

We’re talking about needing to pay folks thousands of dollars over a three to four month period in order that they are able to execute their task effectively.  (I think they should get a minimum of three months per term, and perhaps four.  Over the course of a presidency, this would be 12 to 16 new sets of citizen-interrogators brought into the mix, itself a check and balance on abuse.)  They’re going to need to be able to eat and sleep and have the spare cash to carry out investigations.  Plus, their jobs back home will need to be protected for the short time they are away.  (Assuming, of course, they choose to go to the White House full time if they are selected… I know I would!)

The general principle is this:  the citizens have as much right to interrogate the government as the press, and the press has shown itself desperately in need of having its own ‘check and balance.’  I would much rather have that ‘check and balance’ provided by the citizens than the government, for obvious reasons.  I have sketched out one way in which I think this could be accomplished.  Perhaps some other great minds can come up with their own ideas, which may be better.

 

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