Why NPR’s Andy Carvin moderated White House Twitter interview about Obama’s Middle East speech

In 2007, the Bush administration offered NPR an interview on race relations with the president – but only if Juan Williams did the interview. NPR said no because they didn’t think the Bush administration should pick who interviews the president.

Several days ago, the Obama administration contacted Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media, with an offer: How about hosting a Twitter chat with a White House official after Obama’s big speech on the Middle East on Thursday? NPR said yes.

The White House promoted the event and carried video on its website. NPR carried a Twitter embed and the White House video on its blog The Two Way. Anyone could follow the chat on Twitter – actually, any comments at all related to the speech – using the hashtag #MESpeech, which was trending in the U.S. Thursday afternoon.

It was an interesting merger of the medium and the message, and of media and politics. In the last several months, Carvin has been tracking the uprisings in the Middle East with a unique form of public-facing journalism conducted on Twitter. Mark Stencel, NPR’s managing editor for digital news, said that made Carvin uniquely suited for this role.

And President Barack Obama’s staff are particularly interested in social media after using it extensively in the 2008 campaign. Recently, Obama and other members of his administration took to YouTube and Twitter after the State of the Union; Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, said that “will be a model of things to come.” A Time magazine story published this week described how David Plouffe, senior adviser to the president, watched Twitter during a recent Obama speech “to see what’s penetrating.”

At 11 a.m. today, Carvin and Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and blogger for Foreign Policy, started previewing the speech and retweeting others’ comments.

After Obama’s speech ended shortly after 1 p.m., they were joined by Ben Rhodes, a White House policy official and speechwriter. Carvin and Lynch switched off asking questions and tweeting the answers. It was a hybrid of a live TV interview, with the three sitting around a table at the State Department — the American flag behind them — and a Twitter chat, with Carvin and Lynch tweeting Rhodes’ answers. Rhodes did not have a computer.

Before the chat even started, a blogger criticized Carvin’s participation, calling it an administration-controlled publicity stunt with no one to oppose the administration’s viewpoint.

Such events, wrote Ali Abunimah, offer “a simulacrum of participation while ensuring that millions of eyeballs are diverted away from independent and dissenting analysis and directed toward a strictly official viewpoint.”

Politics didn’t factor into NPR’s decision to participate, Stencel said. “We were entirely focused on the journalism questions,” he said.

Carvin and Lynch picked the questions from Twitter, and Rhodes didn’t know in advance what he would be asked. “If there were any restrictions on what we asked or how we were doing this, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Stencel said.

But with NPR, it’s not so easy to separate journalism and politics. In the last six months NPR has been beset with controversy about political bias, starting with the firing of Juan Williams and ending with the resignation of NPR President Vivian Schiller after an undercover sting video captured a fundraising officer making damaging statements.

Stencel said NPR responded to the White House’ invitation by asking, “Is this the newsmaker we want to hear from and our audience wants to hear from” and who would be the best person to conduct it.

“Andy has cultivated a unique audience and following around the world and is the right person to carry on a conversation and channel a wide range of questions from around the world. He’s been doing it for months.”

If the interview were being conducted another way, Stencel said, perhaps a program host or a beat reporter would’ve done it.

Carvin “has the talent in this format that our hosts have in commanding the air. Andy is in essence the Neal Conan [host of NPR's “Talk of the Nation”] of social media. He understands the format and he can conduct the interview in a way that takes a combination of smarts and skills that’s rare in media.”

Stencel said Thursday’s Twitter chat isn’t unlike one that would be done on broadcast or on the Web. “The big difference is that it’s on Twitter,” he said, calling it a “nuclear-powered call-in show.”

The format, Stencel said, is an evolution of Web chats, with which he was involved at The Washington Post. Those too were handled by people with Web expertise at first. “Very quickly it evolved to the point where we brought in individual reporters and columnists to host these conversations. But there hard to be a format. There had to be a playbook.”

So if a major figure from the tea party asked Carvin to do something similar, would he? “We modulate our news efforts to the news,” Stencel said, “but yeah, like I said, I think we’d be very interested in doing more of this. … I wouldn’t be surprised if we did this again.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/colinkalmbacher Colin Kalmbacher

    Steve, why ask a silly non-starter of a question about the Tea Party when the far more germane question you ought to have posed to Andy is: “Would you do a similar event with a US dissident or someone else critical of US policy as it relates to Israel and Palestine?”

    Using the Tea Party as a foil is reckless, irresponsible, sloppy and just wrong-headed. It smacks of elitism and obfuscates the issue. Is the only viable dissent against an official policy of the Obama administration that which originates from the Tea Party? Why follow up Ali Abunimah’s comments in an article about Obama’s Middle East speech with a softball question about having a sit-down chat with right-wingers? It makes no sense.

    So, here we go: 

    Andy, would you do a similar event with a through-and-through US dissident or someone else critical of US policy as it relates to Israel and Palestine? Someone such as Noam Chomsky, Rashid Khalidi or perhaps Mr. Abunimah himself?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     Thanks for this and for the first-person account of what it was like to do the interview, Andy.

    Steve Myers

  • http://www.facebook.com/andycarvin Andy Carvin

    Since I didn’t get a chance to talk to Steve before this got posted, I thought I’d offer some more details about how this whole thing came about.

    Last week, a contact at State asked if I was planning to live-tweet the speech, and if I wanted to do it on-location. I was going to live-tweet it anyway – either from work or for home – but being closer to the source is great when you can arrange it. So I told him I was interested and that we should talk again as the event approached, since the date and time hadn’t been set in stone yet.

    Then early this week, he got back to me and asked if I’d want access to a senior WH official to do a Twitter Q&A with me afterward, which I also said sounded interesting. He told me that Ben Rhodes would be available if I wanted to do it, and he was hoping to extend the opportunity to one or two others. This seemed like a good idea to me, since doing an in-person Twitter chat solo would’ve been tough, given the logistics of tweeting, talking and listening simultaneously. Ultimately, Marc Lynch of FP.com became the second guy, which was great, because I know him and we have a good rapport with each other.

    On the whole, I thought it went well. We got dozens of diverse questions from around the world via Twitter, and many of them were smart and pointed, which is what we were looking for. All of the primary questions we asked during the chat were from people on Twitter, though we did improvise our own followups when we thought Rhodes was dodging the question.

    I wrote up some thoughts about the experience this afternoon. If you want to check it out, it’s here:

    http://n.pr/jWqJus
     
    Anyway, hope you enjoyed it.

  • Anonymous

    Paul D Bagne via iPad
    ~ post PC messaging~

    Carvin is one rare reporter using tweeter to its potential as a tool of his trade. I follow him and his sources–rebels underground in Tripoli, academics, policy makers, freedom fighters on the battlefield, members of of the National Transitional council, a mother mourning the death of her son lost in the war for democracy in Libya. It’s like being on the ground in Lybia with a reporter’s notebook where the souces come to me. Those of us following #libya, where Carvin seems to lead the discussion, are remarkably well-informed by hundreds of 140-word messages that each day tell weave some compelling stories which traditional journalists miss. In this Steve Myers piece is an uderlying tone of insolence common among tweeter critics and wags for whom the times they are a changing. And btw, Carvin tweets 15 hours a day and NPR isn’t the boss of him for all of that time. I doubt he needed approval for taking this opportunity to provide a public service and show his colleagues the future.

  • Anonymous

    Carvin is one rare reporter using tweeter to its potential as a tool of his trade. I follow him and his sources–rebels underground in Tripoli, academics, policy makers, freedom fighters on the battlefield, members of of the National Transitional council, a mother mourning the death of her son lost in the war for democracy in Libya. It’s like being on the ground in Lybia with a reporter’s notebook where the souces come to me. Those of us following #libya, where Carvin seems to lead the discussion, are remarkably well-informed by hundreds of 140-word messages that each day tell weave some compelling stories which traditional journalists miss. In this Steve Myers piece is an uderlying tone of insolence common among tweeter critics and wags for whom the times they are a changing. And btw, Carvin tweets 15 hours a day and NPR isn’t the boss of him for all of that time. I doubt he needed approval for taking this opportunity tob show us the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.stencel Mark Stencel

    Emily: You asked, “Why didn’t NPR assign a beat reporter to this interview? Why aren’t all press conferences covered this way?”

    We live blog most presidential addresses and news conferences of note, and many other breaking news stories as well. And Andy and others at NPR often live tweet events, too.

    As I told Steve Myers above, we certainly discussed involving another journalist. But if you watched the video from the event, you saw that the mechanics were pretty tough, even for a pair of highly active Twitter users like Marc and Andy. Few others would have pulled it off. This took a combination of talent, experience and skill — much like hosting a live broadcast. And Andy certainly has earned the trust of his audience, his sources and his colleagues in the way he has “anchored” his feed through all the developments in North Africa and the Middle East. We had confidence that Andy was the right journalist for this assignment — and the quality of the questions that he and Marc selected and the persistent follow-ups proved us right.

  • http://www.twitter.com/emilytroutman Emily Troutman

    Thanks for this story, but I think it misses the bigger picture. As a journalist, I often tweet live from press conferences, as do others. Is every press conference a “publicity stunt”? Yes and no. When journalists “pull” quotes to use in stories, they do the exact same thing Andy did here, but without any of the context or explicit input from the general public.

    As followers read, watched and listened in today, one reader @qifanabki said, “Interesting to compare @abuaardvark and @acarvin transcriptions of Rhodes’ answers. Not always the same… #MEspeech”.

    Live Twitter interviews like today’s can deconstruct journalism and help readers understand the evolution of competing narratives. As a *writer* of news, I am also a very adept *reader* of news. Journalists often examine their colleagues’ work to see which quotes they pulled and which they didn’t. In the same way a chef has more nuanced understanding of how their meal was prepared, Twitter can deliver news-savvy to the average reader.
     
    The real question is, why didn’t NPR assign a beat reporter to this interview? Why aren’t all press conferences covered this way? Why is Andy Carvin carrying all the weight and all the risk? I think “traditional” journalists are still uncomfortable drawing back the curtain. Stencel says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if they did this again. In digi-speak, LOL. Welcome to the news of the future.

    You can follow me: @emilytroutman