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You, Gibbs, Oil Spill Questions

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 16 2010

Ari Melber reports on the White House's experiment with online engagement last night that found press secretary Robert Gibbs spending the half hour between 8:30 and 9 taking online questions submitted by the public:

Gibbs cracked open the door of the press room to any citizen with an Internet connection, and on short notice, about 14,000 people submitted or voted on questions about the oil spill. Over 7,200 questions were submitted, and participation was deep, with an average 13 votes cast per person. Several questions, read aloud by White House new media director Macon Phillips, focused on regulatory requirements for emergency shut off switches, media access to the spill zone, techniques for cleaning up the spill, and international collaboration in assisting the clean-up effort.

One of the challenges here is figuring out by what metrics to judge something like this. I'd suggested yesterday (through the subtle use of the phrase "last minute") that I thought that a mere seven hours to gather questions through YouTube and Google Moderator was hardly a long amount of time for such a thing. But people did seem to find their way there, quickly: by my numbers, ten minutes before Phillips fired up the computer last night, there are about 6,000 questions from just fewer than 13,000 people.

But one particularly interesting bit is that those numbers managed to grow during the Gibbs session. In other words, people were using the interface as a two-way medium to talk back to Gibbs -- or, at least, to talk amongst themselves. That's intriguing, because it raises the possibility that you might be able to use a YouTube/Moderator system like this to actually hold real-time, moderated discussions between public officials and the public. Something like that might make this less gimmicky and more of a healthy platform for engagement.

Take Laraine from Eureka, California, for example. She took issue with a Gibbs answer shortly after he gave it, one where he contended that, despite what we might be hearing, press aren't being restricted in their attempts to report from the Gulf expect in dangerous situations. "I disagree with the answer to the second question," wrote Laraine, "Media has been denied access to beaches where clean up workers are NOT wearing any haz-mat type of clothing. This was discussed in depth in a recent NPR talk show."

Gibbs' answers on the dozen questions served up by Phillips during the half hour -- on shutting off the Deepwater Horizon gusher, the future of BP's oil drilling licenses in U.S. waters, the personal connection of politicians to the disaster in the Gulf, underwater well inspections, renewing the push for clean energy and more -- weren't, by my measure, all that in-depth or particularly revelatory. (The White House helpfully breaks them down here.) President Obama is doing "everything within his power" was the gist of the Gibbsian response. And really, some of the really juicy questions did, if satisfactory answers were truly to come, require more situation and policy expertise than we can really expect Gibbs to possess.

Which is why it's encouraging that Phillips said at the end of the chat that some of the more popular questions from the session will be answered by White House officials over the rest of the week. After all, there's no reason why a "citizen press conference" or whatever we might want to call it has to be a replica of the "professional press conference." If we're doing things differently, we may as well do things better, too.