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The Time That Andy Carvin, Mark Lynch, and Twitter Interviewed the White House's Ben Rhodes

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, May 19 2011

From left to right, Marc Lynch, Andy Carvin, and Ben Rhodes.

From a journalistic perspective, the idea of a White House teaming up with two media figures to produce a White House event can be discomforting. But even uncomfortable unions can still produce something worthwhile.

NPR's Andy Carvin has gained attention for tweeting the "Arab Spring" and amassing a sizable Twitter network while doing it. Marc Lynch is an international affairs professor at George Washington University known to the blogging world as Abu Aardvark. This afternoon, at the White House's invitation, they (@acarvin and @abuaardvark, respectively) interviewed White House foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes shortly after President Obama delivered at the State Department a speech on Middle East policy. The event could have been little more than another White House Open for Questions session with the added sheen of authenticity because media figures were doing the questioning. Instead, it was more like Carvin and Lynch had the Twitter universe glommed onto their own brains, with the world -- and the Middle East, from where the bulk of the questions seemed to come -- helping to make them smarter, sharper, as they poked and prodded an administration official.

And there was poking and prodding. Carvin and Lynch flipped back and forth with the questioning duties, asking and re-asking Rhodes about military trials in Egypt, about what the U.S. is truly willing to do in Syria, about the possibility of sanctioning Yemen. As Alex Howard observed on GovFresh, this was no Mark Zuckerberg serving up questions to Obama in a chummy "town hall" at Facebook headquarters. Carvin and Lynch were tweeting while they questioned Rhodes, which was awkward, as was the clackity-clack of their keyboards. (Is it fair to say now that the over-loud MacBook keyboard has foreign policy implications?) But the running log from the duo also served to open up the process to the world. One commentator noted that the pair's notes on Rhodes's comments sometimes differed. The world got to watch a form of journalism being practiced in real-time. "This is hard," Lynch said at one point. "Yes it is," said Carvin.

Besides, perhaps, the White House's midwifery in creating the experience, there was another way that this wasn't completely open. Rhodes was the only one in the room, or participating in the questioning, who wasn't tied into Twitter. Actually, Rhodes doesn't tweet. But he might start, and ask for his own TweetDeck up and running next time, once he learns of the advanced warning having an eye on Twitter would have given him. "About to ask Mosque question again," tweeted Carvin at one point during the interview. "Didn't answer it."

Here's an archive of the tweets from today's interview. There's no video of the chat yet, but it will likely be up on the White House website when it does get released. In a perfect world, perhaps, journalists would have come up with the idea to do this sort of interview on their own, with the White House agreeing to their vision. That's not the way this went down, though. But it still, in my opinion, managed to produce something novel, global, and engaging that still respected the spirit of a free press. Curious what you all made of it.