Outside the Frame: Documenting Government in Real Time

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) cheated on her diet Saturday night.

Senator Claire McCaskillI know this not because the Senator and I are close, personal friends, but because I follow her on Twitter.

McCaskill blogs about business, too: On February 6, she felt confident about the stimulus bill’s prospects: “Democratic Caucus meeting in 15 minutes. There will be some hollering, but I think we will get this done.”
Meanwhile, political journalist Ana Marie Cox (formerly of Wonkette) has been using TwitPic to share photos of her trips to the Capitol (where they apparently still use pay phones) and White House press conferences (before the cameras start rolling).

I’m finding this unmediated access to the details of daily life in government fascinating, and much more compelling than the polished talking points that dominate mainstream media coverage of the same. It feels more — well, more verité. More like there’s a camera inside the vaunted chambers of government, constantly, and we can peek through the viewfinder whenever we like, panning and zooming to our hearts’ desire. Call it C-SPAN 2.0.

In this world, blogs are old school. A blog post is the culmination of a day’s worth of Tweets — the VHS compilation, if you will, of so many FlipCam moments. Also old school: having a staff member write for you. It’s clear that McCaskill, for example, is writing her tweets herself. It’s equally clear that many of her colleagues are not. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a big step towards government transparency for elected officials to be on so many platforms; it’s just a much bigger step when they don’t have ghostwriters. And it’s truer to the spirit of these platforms to share ideas before they’ve been polished into PR nuggets; otherwise, you’re just publishing the same old messages in more places, rather than embracing the style of communication that each platform invites.

Take, for example, the White House blog. On the surface, it sounds innovative: Blogging the White House! Welcome to the 21st century! But in reality, this is just another PR mechanism that doesn’t allow us any more access to the workings of the White House than so many press releases. The blog doesn’t invite comments, and it’s not clear who writes it. I’d much rather see it structured as a team blog with cabinet members, and/or their high ranking staff members, contributing, with posts clearly attributed, and with the opportunity for users to comment. It would definitely be a challenge to manage comments effectively, but come on: this is an administration tasked with fixing one of the worst financial crises in our nation’s history, launching universal healthcare and maintaining peace in a dangerous world. I think we can handle comment moderation. (Here’s hoping that the administration’s recently appointed Chief of Citizen Participation agrees.)

There will always be room for after-the-fact analysis of the wheelings and dealings of government and politics; we need this to help us collectively interpret the meaning of events. This is where traditional journalism, documentary filmmaking and yes, even blogging, come in. But there’s increasingly a tug in the zeitgeist toward a less manicured presentation of events — a demand for access to raw experience. And increasingly, offering such access is key to an elected official’s credibility. You don’t control the story anymore; you couldn’t, even if you tried. So you might as well wave to the 2.0 camera.

Related links:
Members of Congress Who Twitter — A user-generated list maintained as part of Congresspedia, “The citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress that YOU can edit.”
The Sunlight Foundation — Its mission: “using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens” (See current projects).

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.