Who's Afraid of New Media?

On Jan. 25, 1961, the dashing new president of the United States delivered the first presidential press conference to be televised live. Amid numerous questions about tensions with the Soviet Union and upcoming domestic legislation came this query: "Mr. President, there has been some apprehension about the instantaneous broadcasts of presidential press conferences such as this one, and the contention being that an inadvertent statement is no longer correctible, as in the old days, could possibly cause some grave consequences. Do you feel that there is any risk or could you give us some thought on that?"

Imagine that -- a reporter, concerned that the president might commit an embarrassing gaffe that the public would hear. But there weren’t many of those, as the informed and charming Kennedy. But what became clear in that press conference and subsequent ones was that John F. Kennedy didn't have much to worry about. Standing before the White House press corps, Kennedy was informed, reassuring, witty, and charming. The young president utilized the newly dominant medium of television like none of his predecessors could have.

Today, the media landscape shifts faster than the White House's previous inhabitants could have imagined. Had you told Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower -- much less Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson -- that one day, U.S. senators would spend the president's State of the Union address tapping out insipid 140-character messages, complaining about their seating assignments, or offering catty criticisms of this or that proposal, they would surely have replied that the republic was tumbling toward oblivion.

And a few years from now, the new methods by which Barack Obama seeks to communicate with voters, at which so many marvel today, will seem perfectly unremarkable. Yet there is one group that is obviously made profoundly uneasy by the administration's apparent re-conceptualization of just what "the media" are and how they can be used to advance an agenda. It is the traditional reporters, the ink-stained wretches of our newspapers and the walking haircuts of television news, who find another reason to be discomfited with each new presidential event.

It started at the first press conference of Obama's presidency, when among the reporters given the privilege of asking a question was Sam Stein of the Huffington Post. No doubt, more than a few reporters turned their heads in surprise when Obama called on Stein. But the Huffington Post has a larger audience than many traditional media outlets; an analysis by the research firm Comscore found that the site had 4.5 million unique visitors in September. While the Huffington Post is often referred to as the leading blog in America (though it is arguably a news aggregator, not a blog, and even then, blurs the lines between "news aggregator" and "news-gathering organization," since it employs reporters like Stein), others also have vast audiences.

For instance, the Daily Kos has more readers in a day than all but four American newspapers do for their print edition. The administration understands that there are far more ways to reach Americans than there were just a few years ago -- and it will use whatever works.

Nonetheless, many of these newly visible media aren’t new at all. In his second press conference, Obama called on a reporter from Univision, the Spanish-language network that reaches millions of Americans (in some markets like Los Angeles and Miami, Univision has a larger audience than the four broadcast networks among "the demo," meaning adults 18 to 49). He called on a reporter from Stars & Stripes, the newspaper that serves American military personnel all over the world. He called on a reporter from Ebony magazine. And he called on a reporter from Agence France-Presse, the French wire service whose reports are read all over the world.

You could look at this as nodding to a series of constituencies -- Hispanics, check; service members check; African Americans, check; foreigners, check. But those nods have real meaning. They say to the people who use those news sources, "I think you're important -- I'm listening to you, and I'm speaking to you."

But presidential press conferences are special. In these infrequent events, the entire White House press corps crowds into a room, hoping that the most important human being on planet Earth will turn his attention their way and answer the questions they pose. And if he takes time to answer a question from a reporter for an internet site or a Spanish-language network, it means fewer questions for outlets like The Washington Post or Time magazine. The result has been some rather petulant coverage from those elite outlets, like this from The New York Times: "[Obama] showed his usual comfort with a wide array of subjects, even as he excluded the nation's big newspapers from the questioning in favor of a more eclectic mix. … This was Mr. Obama as more enervating than energizing, a reminder of the way he could be in his early days as a presidential candidate, before he became defined by rapturous crowds." The real problem with those non-elite reporters, one supposes, is that they keep asking substantive questions about policy, and Obama keeps answering them. Booooo-riiiiiing.

Because when an elite reporter gets to ask his question, we really get to the heart of the matter, right? Well, maybe not. When not using their moment in the spotlight to ask the president a question about steroid use in baseball (as a Washington Post reporter did) or offering the umpteenth variation of "Aren't you playing politics on this issue?", too many of them are trying to "make news" with their question. Witness CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry's much mocked behind-the-scenes article explaining to viewers just how he came up with the brilliant question he asked the president about American International Group. "I was heading into this event with the same strategy: Make news on something unexpected (I won't tell you which topics I was working on cause it would ruin the surprise for a future presser or interview with the president)," the intrepid truth-seeker wrote.

The problem comes when you mistake "making news" for actually holding the administration accountable. It's not the adversarial pose that matters; it's the substance of the question. Does it reveal something important we hadn't known before? Require the president to clarify something he might rather keep vague? Enable Americans to better understand or judge the administration's actions? Those are the questions that matter. And what was the query Henry was so proud of? "On AIG, why did you wait -- why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? ...Why did it take so long?" Obama's response -- "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak" -- was described as "testy" in other news outlets, which told Henry he had scored a home run. Congratulations, Mr. Henry -- you're the new Edward R. Murrow.

Things only got worse when Obama did another of those "new media" things and held an "electronic town hall," in which anyone could submit a question via the White House Web site in the days leading up to the event. Citizens were allowed to vote on the best questions, and the ones with the most votes were answered by the president. Afterward, some reporters couldn't keep themselves from quibbling about the non-elite nature of the event; The New York Times wrote, "Yet at times, the forum had a canned feel, perhaps because most Americans tend to be more polite in their questions than news reporters, perhaps because they lacked any opportunity to follow up." "Polite" or not, what was notable about the questions was that they were all substantive. There were no questions about politics, no "gotcha" questions, no zingers. There were questions about education, outsourcing of jobs, health care, unemployment among veterans, the future of the auto industry, government contracting, and taxes.

But it was only one question the elite media outlets wanted to point to afterward -- whether legalizing and taxing marijuana might aid the economy. This turned reporters into giggling junior high students -- "Heh heh, pot. The president talked about pot!" At the next press briefing, they made sure to pepper press secretary Robert Gibbs with questions on what Obama thinks about marijuana.

Obama is hardly the first president to realize that the media world doesn't begin and end with The New York Times and NBC News. The Clinton administration paid a great deal of attention to local media, understanding that when the president does an interview on the local Action News, it's a big deal -- not only will the station probably replay it multiple times but the questions are likely to be friendly and not a little star-struck. The Bush administration continued this effort and also courted conservative talk-radio hosts with exclusive interviews with top officials. But all that happened in a way it was easy for elite reporters to ignore. It's one thing for the vice president to give an interview to Rush Limbaugh (as Dick Cheney often did) -- they don't listen to his show. But it's quite another for a White House correspondent from The Washington Post to see a reporter for a Web site stand up right next to him and ask the president a question.

As much as we still need the traditional media -- and we do -- it can't hurt for reporters at major news outlets to be made a little uncomfortable by all the changes happening in their business and the way the administration uses those changes to its advantage. The "new media" representatives who have been allowed within speaking distance of the president have done exactly what journalists ought to: They've asked Obama good questions and generally acted as though they take their responsibility to the public seriously. We certainly can't get too much of that.

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