New York Times highlights Democracy Video Challenge

A Video Contest To Illustrate Democracy
The New York Times
By Noam Cohen

Frank Sinatra once asked the musical question: What is America to me?

On Monday, International Democracy Day, the State Department will announce that it will be asking the world to create three-minute videos that answer a broader question: ”Democracy is …?” as part of a contest timed to mark the occasion.

The Democracy Video Challenge represents an unusual government-private sector educational research group partnership, with YouTube acting as the host of the submitted videos ( and NBC Universal, the Directors Guild of America and Motion Picture Association of America agreeing to screen the winning submissions and meet with the winners as they spend a week visiting New York, Washington and Hollywood. The winners will also meet with government officials and democracy-advocacy groups in the United States. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 31, 2009.

”We are creating opportunities for using emerging technology to engage in a discussion of democracy,” said Jonathan Margolis, deputy coordinator of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, who helped organize the contest. He added that he was excited that the contest would harness so-called Web 2.0 principles in the service of promoting democracy. ”We are a convener for other people to speak. It is a networking approach. Answers can come from any kind of sources.”

Part of the network, however, connects private enterprise with the State Department, and media companies in particular tend to shy away from being directly involved in projects that receive support from government.

”We were told that there has got to be some incentive to enter this thing,” Mr. Margolis said. ”The answer is we’ve got to come up with some prize that is really unique.” He added: ”If the State Department did this on its own, we couldn’t put this prize package together. You would go to the State Department, go to Congress and then go to sleep.”

Representatives from the film schools at New York University and the University of Southern California and as well as organizations like the Center for International Private Enterprise, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, will be part of an outside jury to narrow down the submissions. The public will vote on the winners, the State Department said.

Asked what role the State Department would play in making the contest a success, Mr. Margolis said the department’s sponsorship ”does add a sense of legitimacy and gravitas to what we are trying to do.”

And with more than 70 embassies around the world, he said, ”we also bring a pretty healthy distribution network.”


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