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.”
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.”