The PUBLIC SQUARE STORY, Part V: Best Parts Of Civil Discourse

Fifth in a series

I’ve gladly told the Public Square story at newspaper conferences, during community presentations, as part of company strategy sessions, and in published commentaries.

Editor & Publisher magazine selected the Public Square initiative for the Top 10 News Publishers That Do It Right one year.

I kept files of reader letters and emails thanking the Richmond Times-Dispatch for embracing civil discourse on issues of importance.

Over 15 years, we built a following.

Oddly, fellow publishers told me the thought of moderating a Public Square was akin to volunteering for a root canal or cleaning out a camp latrine.

Heck, I can’t remember any publisher calling me up to tell me he or she launched a version of the Public Square and they’re glad they did.
Instead, I heard this:

Why would you want to get in a room with “those types of angry readers” who call you up and yell, or write the nastiest emails?

“That sounds like hell,” one publisher told me.

Well, maybe if you listen in person or encourage your readers to be part of a broader civic experience, you can turn cranky critics into raving fans.

Or, at least get them to the point where they appreciate the intent of welcoming readers to engage with the newspaper on levels that are different from consuming printed or online products.

I know this:

It was an honor to moderate all 78 of the Public Squares that The Times-Dispatch hosted. And I’m proud of the RTD staff who achieved the stretch goal of demonstrating that in Richmond, Virginia, you could have respectful discourse while passionately debating challenging issues.

I can’t say I recall vividly every second of every 90-minute program — much of it was a blur because the moderator’s concentration on orchestrating the event as well his fighting off jitters and nerves.
But I have lots of rewarding memories.

Here’s a partial list:

TOUGHEST TOPICS: Two controversies top the list: gun control and immigration. No need to explain why. Sweated bullets and coached angry readers throughout the programs. Just keeping combatants in the same room to listen to each other was a major victory.

PROGRAMS THAT DREW THE BIGGEST CROWDS: One was an intense debate. The other was a fun time.

The debate involved the fight in Congress over Obamacare as it headed to a vote. Our comfortable room capacity was about 200 people. At one point we counted in excess of 400 waiting outside the RTD Building to come in.

The other big draw was the program we did on moviemaker Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which was filmed in the Richmond area and debuted in 2012. It was another Public Square where we had to turn away people.

It was fun to feature Richmond as a supporting actor in a blockbuster movie. One of our guest speakers was a Times-Dispatch editor — the beard did it — who appeared in the movie as a congressman and as Lincoln’s pastor during the deathbed scene. Another star was a writer who obtained a photograph of actor Daniel Day Lewis eating at a local restaurant while still dressed as Lincoln during a break. Once in character, always in character, we were told.

BEST HEART-TUGGER: That would be No. 65th where Keith Harward made his first public-speaking appearance after being freed from imprisonment. He spent 33 years in Virginia prisons for crimes he did not commit.

During a live interview with RTD reporter Frank Green, Harward explained he lives with the reality of all that he lost. “I was 26 years old and if you think back to when you were 25, 30 years old, and you take 30 years out of that … those were the best years of your life,” he told Green and the audience. “You had kids, your kids had kids, you got to go to graduation, you got to be able to earn a living, becoming somebody, retire, maybe from your work.

“I didn’t get that. Those years were taken away from me.”
Another powerful moment occurred when an attorney stood up and apologized to Harward for local lawyers not stepping up to right a wrong.

“My great regret, and I will offer you an apology for this, is that all we did was talk about,” Mark Ailsworth said to stunned listeners. “We didn’t act on it. And for that, as an officer of the court, as a member of the bar, I am very, very sorry because we could have taken action and we didn’t do it.”

Another hallmark moment for the Public Square.

BEST LESSON OF CIVILITY: Our debate on the Affordable Health Care Act pitted two congressmen with sharp opposing views. One was Eric Cantor, a Republican. The other was Bobby Cross, a Democrat.

We started the Public Square at the most unusual time of 7:30 a.m. because both Cantor and Cross had to be in Washington later that day for a key vote.

Our overflowing, capacity crowd was buzzing, ready for a fight as the prior congressional debates and town halls all across the country had been rough and intense. Plenty of yelling, threats and anger.

But Cantor and Cross did something I’ll never forget that changed the tone.

They knew they disagreed on most aspects of Obamacare.

But they started by pointing out where they AGREED.

That often gets lost in the controversy, they said, and it robs the legislators of any perception that negotiations and compromises are possible. Besides, knowing the common ground puts the disagreements in better context.

The opening move by Cantor and Scott, I believe, allowed the debate to proceed in an orderly way. It also helped that the two fierce debaters could demonstrate that while they disagreed, they respected each other.

Told me a lot about ingredients to civil discourse.

BEST GRACE-UNDER-PRESSURE COMMENT: “Well, we still have five minutes.”
That was the marketing director’s reassurance when none of our microphones worked as our big room filled to capacity with only moments to go before the scheduled start.

Somehow the equipment behaved and we had clear sound for the full 90 minutes, but not before panic levels were at all-time highs.

MOST EMOTIONAL TIME: No question, it was the Public Square right after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

In chilling detail, one attendee who just returned from the campus recalled hearing students’ cellphone ringing inside the classroom building where the shootings occurred. It was the parents of the deceased calling.

The shock never wears off.

WORST SOUNDING OFF EXPERIENCE: We didn’t realize our loud speakers on one side of the room were out during the Public Square debate on the future of electric vehicles. It caused people to leave in frustration. It would have helped if someone spoke up or even yelled, “Yo, we can’t hear.”

BEST PROP: The guard at the RTD Building entrance looked at me strangely when I entered with a large stuffed bag. “Leaves for the mayor,” I told him.

Our Public Square that night was with Richmond’s new mayor, who answered audience questions that included several about the city ending its longtime practice of picking up leaves homeowners piled up at the curb during autumn.

I hid the bag until the program’s ending when I produced it by saying, “OK, Mr. Mayor, I’ll bag my leaves as long as you still pick them up.”

The mayor was not amused.

CALL IT A STRIKE OUT: Only one topic was featured three times: Richmond’s inability to build a new baseball stadium. (Yes, I’m a baseball fan.) After the third one, I swore off additional ballpark debates. Three strikes and you are out!

By the way, a new ballpark remains in the discussion stages in Richmond.

BEST, WORST BEHAVIOR: I’ll say again: I’m proud the Public Square proved Richmond could demonstrate civil, civic discourse. Among the hundreds of people who attended, we only asked two to leave: an unruly guy who threatened an RTD staffer for not giving him the microphone, and another guy with a smartphone videoing the discussion but wouldn’t sit down to stop blocking people behind him.

That’s a pretty good record.

UNUSUAL MOVE: A local agency fighting addiction often used the Public Square as part of its recovery program by arranging for its clients to attend the programs. For some Public Squares, a dozen or so showed up. Several even raised their hands to speak, making interesting, heartfelt observations.

The last Public Square I moderated focused on regional efforts to confront the opioid crisis. Afterword, I received a nice thank-you note from one of the agency’s managers whose quotes made it into the RTD story.

BEST DON’T-MESS-WITH-US EXAMPLE: One of the ballpark Public Squares focused on a controversial site picked by the Richmond mayor. We expected a big audience. The mayor apparently did as well; a fire marshal appeared — a first! — just in case we violated crowd ordinances.

The uniformed official stood along the back wall.

At one point, the RTD photographer assigned to the Public Square whispered to me, “Don’t worry about any trouble with the mayor.”
He left me in suspense.

Later, the photographer showed me his promised photo.

I had asked the audience members who among them supported keeping the ballpark where the old stadium is and not going to the mayor’s proposed new location.

Among the people raising their hand was the fire marshal. Click.
The mayor would not have been pleased. Glad we never had to use the “evidence.”

BEST PARTICIPANT: This moderator admits he had a favorite among Public Square attendees: the pint-size dynamo we called Ms. Ruby.

Ruby Turner was a former nurse and longtime community activist for law enforcement who attended nearly all of the Public Squares until she died in the summer of 2012 at age 84. She always sat in the same seat, in front along the outline of the square that jutted into the audience.

No matter the topic, she came prepared to say something purposeful and poignant, belting it out with her perfect dictation where you could hear each letter of each word.

Over time, she became a safety valve for the moderator, who could turn to her to help level the conversation after some speakers had gone off the rails.

She was beloved and admired.

At the 25th Public Square on June 2, 2009, Ms. Ruby helped end the program with her wisdom before the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her:

“The wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he heard, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we be like this old bird?”

Adhering to a Public Square tradition, we’ll end on a high note.

—TAS

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