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Does the White House Use Social Media to Circumvent the Press?

February 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
NewsHour's political editor Christina Bellantoni and the Daily Download's Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz highlight President Obama's hosting of a Google Hangout to discuss the ways the White House utilizes social media, and whether the administration prefers dealing more with the public than the press.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: to our series about the digital world’s cultural impact.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni is here with the Daily Download team.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Ordinary citizens have more opportunities to talk directly to the president these days.

Joining us to discuss how the White House is using the Internet to work around the press are two journalists from the website Daily Download. Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Thanks for being here.

So, we’re talking about the president hosting a Google Hangout on Google Plus. This seemed designed initially to talk to relatives in faraway places. How did it become a political tool? And what does the president really accomplish here?

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: Well, I think the president is accomplishing reaching around the press corps to actually talk to voters and voters who may not answer or ask questions that the regular press would.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Like any technology, it might start out with me chatting with you, but companies and politicians now are trying to harness this because it plugs them into a demographic that may not watch a lot of television, that may not read newspapers, for example, but relishes the chance, even though relatively few people get that chance, to ask a question directly to the president of the United States.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And you have to understand that this has only been around for 18 months. And the first time that the president did this, he received 135,000 questions. So that would mean that it was a popular way of reaching out. It was something that was really welcomed.

HOWARD KURTZ: This time, only thousands of questions, according to Google, which won’t provide the exact figure. But you get a bounce from that because people can see it later on all kinds much Web sites and perhaps even in television coverage.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

And so that’s — more than 7,500 questions came through this Google Hangout. And they got votes from more than 100,000 people — or nearly 100,000. So, what are the types of things that people are asking in these hangouts?

HOWARD KURTZ: You know, most of the questions what are what we journalists would call softball, like, why don’t you make computer research a required course in college and that sort of thing.

But every once in a while, somebody will ask a question that a journalist wouldn’t ask and can ask it in a much more pointed and opinionated way than a reporter normally would.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: OK. Well, let’s take a listen to a clip that we have from the president’s Hangout.

KIRA DAVIS, Video Blogger: I do remember clearly in 2008, you ran on a platform of really trying to become one of the most transparent administrations in American history.

However, with recent leaked guidelines regarding drone strikes on American citizens, and Benghazi, and closed-door hearings on the budget and deficit, it just feels a lot less transparent than I think we had all hoped it would be. How has the reality of the presidency changed that promise? And what can we do moving forward to kind of get back to that promise?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, actually, on a whole bunch of fronts, we have kept that promise. This is the most transparent administration in history.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, they do Google Hangouts. We know that.

So, tell us about a little bit about this woman who asked this question. What was she trying to get at there?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, I think she’s a video blogger and is trying to find out from the president why she doesn’t know everything there is to know about our drone program. And this was her way of trying to pin him down.

HOWARD KURTZ: Now, you know, a White House official tells me of these Google chats or Facebook town halls or Twitter town halls which Obama has also — President Obama has also participated in, that they are not an attempt to go around the mainstream press.

But certainly it is a way to circumvent the press room and to speak directly to voters like that. But she couldn’t follow up. She didn’t have all the details that a reporter would have. But she pinned him down.

LAUREN ASHBURN: She did, but — but, as other reporters have said, reporters do this on a daily basis.

They know the ins and outs of the White House. They know the ins and outs of policy and can ask more nuanced questions. And I think that while her question was pointed, he was able to circumvent it.

HOWARD KURTZ: Because there weren’t enough specifics in there in the way that a reporter may have framed the very same topic.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Exactly.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

Well, in a couple other examples, we see how these can make news. Vice President Biden, he did actually a Google Hangout with our own Hari Sreenivasan on the gun issue, but recently did a Facebook chat. And he had a kind of interesting reaction to some of the questions there.

LAUREN ASHBURN: He thought that they weren’t supposed to be coming from a parents magazine-sponsored chat.

HOWARD KURTZ: The vice president, I think it’s fair to say, bristled at the pointed nature of questions from people who believe in what they would call gun rights.

And it led to a long, animated, rather aggressive response from Vice President Biden in which he said that, you know, you don’t need assault weapons. As I told my wife, Jill, just go get a shotgun. A couple of blasts from that, and you will scare anybody off.

Now, that was replayed on television everywhere because the vice president was so vociferous about it.

LAUREN ASHBURN: So, while this Facebook chat or this Google hangout may not have the millions and millions of viewers that traditional television might have on the State of the Union night, it does act as a megaphone, because then it drives the conversation for every blogger, for every correspondent, for every website out there.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes.

Well, and looking at this, you know, FDR was sort of the example of these radio chats. His first one got 35 million. As many as 54 million heard the height of them. Now, how many people are actually watching after the fact when it’s clipped on YouTube? The White House is using this to spread their own message?

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s hard to measure. But, clearly, it is a fraction of what Franklin Roosevelt could reach with using the mass medium of the day.

This is not mass media. If Obama wants to reach — if President Obama wants to reach the most Americans that he can, he will go on television and use that bully pulpit. This is narrow-casting to people who might not ordinarily be viewers of the evening news and a way to communicate directly with folks without having to go through the press.

LAUREN ASHBURN: When I give speeches about social media, the one thing that I say is that this is a way to reach an audience, to reach other people that you wouldn’t normally reach.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, we will leave it there. Thank you very much.

We’d like your thoughts on the evolution of White House communication. Did you watch the Google Hangout? What would you ask the president if you had a chance? Weigh in at NewsHour.PBS.org.