Burriss: Town hall not-so news

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You may have noticed a lot of so-called "town hall" discussion programs on television lately...programs where audience members have the opportunity to question politicians, sports figures and other notables.

Actually these programs have been around for years, at least since the 1968 Richard Nixon campaign. In these early incarnations audience members were carefully screened to make sure they asked questions the candidates wanted to answer.

Now, in at least some instances, audience members are chosen from lists of viewers who have answered a survey sponsored by the news organization, and who also indicated they would be willing to be further contacted.

In other instances some of the audience members are people with a vested interest in a particular issue.

There seems to be two primary reasons for this ever-growing number of these programs.

First has been the unfortunate rise of so-called "citizen journalism." This trend assumes "civilians" with no experience in news gathering, data analysis, interview technique or any kind of in-depth background in complex social and political issues, can ask probing questions of politicians trained in question evasion.

Now it is certainly true audience members can, and do, ask questions that are on the minds of voters. But the answers are generally set, pre-packaged responses, long on vague generalities and short on substantive content. Thus it is important for the host of the program to ask follow-up questions.

Second, there is, unfortunately, a general distrust of the media, which has been exacerbated by the extreme polarization between politicians and their partisans. Town hall programs thus help to relieve this distrust by giving voters what appears to be an active role in the news-gathering process.

This is not to say there is not a place for town hall meetings with candidates and other public officials. The more often candidates have to face questions the more the opportunity for voters to gather information and compare positions.

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Larry Burris
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