If the current political landscape seems to be pockmarked with hard disagreements, that's nothing compared to the divergent opinions about what PBS is billing as the centerpiece event of its ongoing "Democracy Project."
The National Issues Convention, which opened Thursday at the University of Texas in Austin and will be broadcast on PBS Saturday and Sunday (with a wrap-up review special on Jan. 26), is described by one of its founders as the first time American voters have met to deliberate for days on key campaign issues and then to question the presidential candidates themselves.
And most of it will be on television.
For social scientist James Fishkin, who has been promoting the concept of the "deliberative poll" since the late 1980s and convinced PBS and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (which also produces "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer") to produce the TV side of the Austin convention, TV is key to the event.
To critics, such as Washington, D.C.-based pollster Brian Tringali, TV is part of the problem.
Organizers are planning for 600 citizens to convene--all of them drawn from a traditional polling sample that began last fall. After having participated in the original poll, the citizens were invited to Austin, and those able to attend were provided with literature summarizing three issue areas that Fishkin and his colleagues identified as central to the '96 campaign: the economy, U.S. foreign policy in a post-Cold War world and the state of the family. (The literature was reviewed by a bipartisan panel for balanced perspectives.)
Once the attendees arrive, they will be polled on the issue areas. They'll then break up into 30 groups of 20, each run by a moderator affiliated with the nonpartisan National Issues Forums, which regularly conducts citizen discussion groups around the country. (These group discussions will be featured on the Jan. 26 broadcast.)
The groups will discuss the three issue areas at length, then designate a representative to ask questions of Republican presidential candidates on Saturday and of Vice President Al Gore on Sunday.
These convention forums, which PBS is airing, will be moderated by Lehrer. Before they leave, the attendees will be polled once again to measure any changes in their opinions.
It is this entry-and-exit polling, with small-group discussions and large-group forums sandwiched between, that defines the deliberative poll, Fishkin explains.
"This is the first time," he notes, "that a nationally random sample of Americans has been brought to a single place to deliberate on issues, and on TV as well. We will hopefully get a sense of what the public at large would think on major issues if they talked about them thoughtfully and at length.
"Some have confused it with a straw poll, which it's not, or with a debate, which it's not, or with a TV town meeting, which it's not. We're doing everything to create an environment for an informed dialogue on the issues--a setting for people to become what I call 'the ideal citizen.'
"My view of American democracy is that we've given power to the people, but we haven't allowed them to think about the issues."
One reason for that, Fishkin argues, is the electronic media's fixation on sound-bite and horse-race-style campaign reporting.
Which is why "it's curious," says pollster Tringali, "that he's designing this experiment for TV. [Fishkin] has been a tough critic in the past of TV's negative effects on politics. This event is in a double-bind, as I see it: First, the literature and information being given to the attendees is selective and not comprehensive; second, TV's presence will effect this supposedly representative sample like TV affected the O.J. Simpson trial jury. It ends up being so far from reality that it's not worth the paper it's printed on."
Fishkin found in previous deliberative poll experiments in England, however, that a larger and more representative voter sample was brought together because of "the draw of being on TV."
Everitt Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research (which recently published a debate among pollsters and social scientists on the convention), says he is "troubled" that "this is the leading kickoff event of the campaign season, as far as TV is concerned, and that Fishkin and PBS are billing this as 'higher truth' with a chunk of five hours."
The suggestion, Ladd argues, that viewers should "pay more attention to this poll than all the others, that this is what we'd all think if we thought about these issues hard enough, is a pernicious tampering with our democratic process. There are thousands of citizen forums held every year, and there's no claim made that they're representative of anything."