As the 2012 presidential campaign kicks into gear, President Obama’s White House media operation is demonstrating an unprecedented ability to broadcast its message through social media and the Internet, at times doing an end-run around the traditional press.The White House Press Office now not only produces a website, blog, YouTube channel, Flickr photo stream, and Facebook and Twitter profiles, but also a mix of daily video programming, including live coverage of the president’s appearances and news-like shows that highlight his accomplishments.
“Advise the Adviser: Your Direct Line to the White House,” the administration’s latest online program launched last week, encourages viewers to offer “advice, opinions and feedback on important issues” and promises a response from a senior administration official in return.
“We’re striving to not just have a passive website where people can read about what’s happening but create a method of interaction and feedback,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
It joins “Open for Questions,” a periodic series of live moderated video chats with officials, “West Wing Week,” a magazine-style show featuring the president behind the scenes, and other live-streaming events, including an annotated version of the State of the Union address, all intended to more directly disseminate the administration’s message.
But while these innovative communications tools ostensibly offer greater transparency and openness, critics say they have come at a troublesome expense: less accountability of the administration by the independent, mainstream press.
Over the past few months, as White House cameras have been granted free reign behind the scenes, officials have blocked broadcast news outlets from events traditionally open to coverage and limited opportunities to publicly question the president himself.
Obama’s recent signing of the historic New START treaty with Russia and his post-State of the Union cabinet meeting, for example, were both closed to reporters in a break with tradition. And during a recent question and answer session with the president and visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the White House imposed an unusual limit of just one question each from the U.S. and Canadian press corps.
“The administration has narrowed access by the mainstream media to an unprecedented extent,” said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton, who has covered seven administrations. “Access here has shriveled.”
Members of the press have always had quibbles with White House media strategies, calling cut-backs in access an affront to transparency, even as administration officials insist they’re simply taking advantage of new technologies.
But some say the current dynamic is different, and dangerous.
“They’re opening the door to kicking the press out of historic events, and opening the door to having a very filtered format for which they give the American public information that doesn’t have any criticism allowed,” said University of Minnesota journalism professor and political communication analyst Heather LaMarre.
LaMarre and other political communication experts say the Obama White House is continuing the policy started by President George W. Bush, who famously vowed to “go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people,” and capitalizing on new media and social media to do so more easily than ever before.
The White House has amassed 1.9 million followers on Twitter, 900,000 fans on Facebook and averages 250,000 visits to its YouTube channel per month. Its website received roughly 1.1 million unique visitors in January, according to ComScore.
By contrast, ABC News has 1.2 million followers on Twitter, 150,000 fans on Facebook, and averages 21.7 million unique visitors per month to ABCNews.com, according to ComScore.
“What you’re seeing on the Internet is transparency at its finest,” said Earnest, the White House spokesman. “We are giving citizens across the country direct access to decision makers in the government.”
Earnest said the effort to build and engage an online audience was intended to supplement the independent press, not supplant it.
And while critics might disagree, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that some Americans might not care.
“If Nixon had announced he was going to start the ‘Nixon channel’ and said they were only going to put up stuff he approved of, people would have said, ‘Oh my God, this is like Communist Russian state media,'” said David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“But now social media have a friendly face on them, so these media tools are not seen by the public — particularly younger Americans — as some sort of power grab by the president or government,” he said. “They’re just modern ways of reaching out and communicating.”
Perlmutter says what he calls “state run media 2.0” might be just what younger generations, who polls show are disillusioned with the mainstream press, are looking for. And, he said, satisfying their “need to feel connected” could give Obama the edge among tech-savvy voters heading into the next campaign.
“They want to ask the questions themselves, post questions on the White House blog, tweet the president or Robert Gibbs directly,” he said. “They don’t think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is bypassing an important filter of information.’ They don’t care about the filter.”