Clinton to make history with high-tech town meeting

February 08, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton will make history at 8 p.m. Wednesday when he becomes the first president to use satellite wizardry in a high-tech town meeting with ordinary Americans.

The same television station -- and conceivably the same studio, microphone and high stool -- that played host to candidate Clinton in Detroit in September will be doing it again; only this time with audiences in Miami, Atlanta and Seattle linked by satellite.

This time it will be President Clinton: a president with a national appeal not for votes but for spending cuts, tax increases and individual sacrifice; a president struggling to forge an economic plan before his fast-approaching State of the Union speech Feb. 17.

"The State of the Union will be a very key time," said White House media director Jeff Eller, who began arranging the town meeting last Monday. "The president wants to listen to people, to get input about jobs and the economy."

Mr. Clinton also wants to prepare Americans for the sacrifices he will be asking them to make when he unveils his budget.

"What we're seeing is a revolution in politics and the media, in the way that candidates -- and now a president -- communicate and citizens participate," said Frank Greer, a Democratic Party consultant and media adviser to the Clinton campaign.

But skeptics question the value of the exercise. "How much listening does he still have to do? I mean, he's spent a year listening," commented Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Hess, an adviser to past Democratic and Republican administrations. "This looks more like damage control, or something in the notion of the 'permanent campaign.' "

Mr. Clinton is not the first president to hold town meetings. Jimmy Carter held several, including one on his first trip as president. But they were local events unvarnished by any high-tech communications.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous for his "fireside chats" on radio, and president Ronald Reagan often turned to television to address the public directly on issues of importance, but these were one-way communications without the give-and-take of the talk-show format.

Mr. Clinton has made full use of the talk-show medium, starting with a televised show in the early, strife-filled days of his campaign in New Hampshire last February. Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who entered the race later, promised, if elected, to use electronic town meetings extensively to gauge and influence public opinion.

The only national channel planning to carry Mr. Clinton's hourlong town meeting live is C-Span, the politics-and-policy cable network that reaches 58.5 million households. But some network affiliates may also choose to air the program live.

Sharing the prime time spotlight with the president and a 60-member studio audience at Detroit's ABC-affiliate WXYZ will be audiences at sister stations in Miami, Atlanta and Seattle -- all sharing time and questions by satellite link-up.

Mr. Eller said he approached the four stations because he was familiar with them, as each had featured Mr. Clinton in talk shows during the campaign. He said he would make the same offer to stations in other cities for future town meetings.

The hourlong, question-and-answer session will occupy one of the best prime time slots of the week, made more important by its coincidence with the February "sweeps" -- the time when networks schedule their most interesting programs to boost their ratings.

"This is something of a risk for us because of the 'sweeps,' " said John Garwood, vice-president of Miami's WPLG-TV, one of the four participating stations. "But we see this as something very special -- a really historic event. I don't think a president has ever gone to the public in quite this way before."

Each of the four stations said it agreed to participate on condition that it be allowed to pick its audience and the questions without White House influence or knowledge. Each said it would try to make the audience reflect the social and political interests, gender, age and ethnic make-up of its community.

Atlanta's WSB, Seattle's KOMO and Detroit's WXYZ said they would choose participants based on phoned or written applications. WPLG in Miami said it would issue invitations.

WXYZ assistant news director Alan Upchurch said each station would follow the same format: a single roving moderator who would carry a microphone, "Phil Donahue-style," to selected questioners in the audience.

Mr. Clinton will walk on stage at the beginning of the hourlong program and be introduced by station anchorman Bill Bonds, who will then go straight to the audience for the first question, he said. The president will be left alone on stage with a high stool and a table with water. He will have a wireless lapel microphone, allowing him to walk about freely.

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