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About That PBS NewsHour Story on the "Wired White House"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, March 30 2010

A couple of weeks ago, February 25th to be exact, a producer from the PBS NewsHour interviewed me for a story they were working on looking at how the White House and the Democratic National Committee are using new media. That story finally aired last night (with an accompanying piece on how Republicans are using new media said to be coming soon). You can watch it here:

The story gives a good overview of the many ways the White House is using new communications technologies to get its message out and, to some modest degree, engage with the public. White House new media director Macon Phillips and Organizing for America new media director Natalie Foster are featured describing how they use everything from Twitter to Facebook to iPhone apps, and how they are involving their supporters in tracking talk-radio discussions of politics and in submitting questions to President Obama via YouTube. On the government side of things, nifty projects like Serve.gov and the Open Government Initiative get a few seconds on air time, too.

But unfortunately, the whole report is framed by the "insiderist" view of politics as a zero-sum game, where online communications is just one new part of what narrator Ray Suarez calls the "modern-day Web wars." The web is interesting, he is telling his viewers, because "This White House and its opponents have a new political arsenal at their disposal." To which I can only say:

When you assume that only frame for politics is war, is there any doubt that you will look at communications as a battle, the web simply as one more weapon, and, by implication, the public as targets to be bombed with messages?

To the degree that the White House imagines new media as anything like a listening tool, it's just to better game the communications war. So, midway through the NewsHour story, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs talks about how he is using Twitter to "get an understanding from my perspective of what a reporter is hearing, what are they working on, what are they reporting."

Sigh.

Near the end of the report, I'm cited along with my friend and colleague Jose Vargas of the Huffington Post, as a critic of how narrowly the White House is using new media. The NewsHour used two snippets from a half-hour interview. First, a little bit of set-up. I note that the new media team has had to surmount all kinds of technical and legal obstacles just to get to where they are: "...had to modernize their infrastructure and completely redesign the White House Web site." And then I take note of how much content they are producing, saying, "They now have a very active blog. And, every day, you see a lot of activity on the site. It's become a very vibrant hub for information about what the White House is doing."

Then I'm quoted as urging a larger change in mind-set:

It's 2010, and 90 percent of Americans are wired in some way. And the White House is still using the bully pulpit as if we're in the television age and it's 1996. The Internet is here. It's not going away. And it's time to reimagine the bully pulpit, in the digital age, as not just a place that you put your speech, put your statement, your press conference online, and just broadcast through the Internet, but that you use the dynamic, interactive, two-way nature of online media.

Much of the actual interview went into more detail on what that might look like. I suggested all sorts of possibilities familiar to readers of this blog, starting with the fact that Obama is personally very comfortable speaking extemporaneously and thus ought to copy David Cameron of England in holding regular, weekly question-and-answer sessions with the online public where he would speak to whatever topics the public wanted covered each week, where people could watch and comment live, and where those comments were aggregated and reflected back, so as to create a new kind of feedback loop and virtual townhall. I also suggested that the White House website be thought of much more as a platform to connect citizens to each other around their common concerns, rather than just a one-to-many tool. Similarly, I offered that OFA could be introducing Obama supporters to each other district-by-district and sharing power with them over the group's decisions, rather than treating them as a list to be mined.

Unfortunately, the NewsHour didn't really want to go too far down this path, merely tossing out one idea, which is to have Obama do a "fireside" chats internet-style, with him maybe reading and responding via live video some of the ten letters from ordinary Americans his staff picks for him to read every night. (In essence, talk radio over the internet.) They attribute this idea to me, but in fact it came up in a different context. Their reporter had asked me how Obama could possibly have the time to do any kind of regular, interactive online engagement with the public given his tightly packed daily schedule. I had responded, well, if he has time to read ten letters a night from the public he surely could do that while interacting with the public online.

All in all, I know I should hardly be complaining about getting my 15 seconds of fame on national television. But it is 2010, and we are living in the Networked Age. News and politics and government aren't just things we consume passively.

(To wit, Gibbs's understanding of new media: "You may get -- you may watch the evening news. You may get a lot of your other news from -- from the Internet and a computer. You may get it off your BlackBerry.)

We don't just "get" and "watch." We participate. We co-create. Get it?