Recently the Obama administration has stepped up its use of social media to send messages directly to the American people, bypassing the press corps. Reporters can’t help but feel left out.
If administration officials can use Twitter, YouTube and other means to get their word out, then what is the role of the White House correspondent?
“This technology is taking journalism out of our hands and putting it in the hands of the administration,” said Ann Compton, an ABC News reporter who’s been covering the White House for 35 years. “It’s not a comfortable position for most of us.”
She said one particular tweet sent out by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs during the recent Nuclear Security Summit made it clear just how vulnerable her position is.
“Ukraine will get rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, enough to build several nuclear weapons, by 2012,” Gibbs tweeted Monday.
According to Compton, that tweet was the first word that Ukraine was giving up its nuclear materials rather than an announcement to the press.
“It’s offensive that he thinks he needs to give information to the general public before he gives it to us, people who make an honest effort in covering the White House.”
She said Gibbs made three first-time news announcements last week by tweet. She now has Gibbs’ tweets sent directly to her Blackberry, with a noise to alert her to them.
“Fifty thousand people know about it, but not the reporters who are assigned to cover the president every day,” Compton said. “That’s not a good situation.”
But the first White House director of citizen participation, Katie Jacobs Stanton, said tweeting is crucial to keeping an open line of communication between the White House and the American people.
“It helps stop rumors before they infest themselves,” said Stanton, who now works at the State Department. “We’ve seen the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, do this quite a bit, when there is wrong information out there. Before the talking heads get all spun out and American citizens get more and more confused, they lay out the facts and say, ‘Make your own decisions based on the data.’”
In addition to tweeting, White House officials are also posting videos directly online. For instance, last year President Barack Obama taped a message for the people of Iran, wishing them a happy Norouz (an Iranian holiday). The video was not distributed through the media. Rather, it was posted directly to YouTube.
“It was a direct connection to the people of Iran,” Stanton said. “It wasn’t making a statement that the media could interpret and then translate and send back to the people of Iran. It was instant. It was transparent. It was real.”
And earlier this month, White House videographer Arun Chaudhary launched West Wing Week on the White House’s official Web site. It’s a weekly video recap of the news in and around the White House in the seven days prior.
“With everything that President Obama does in a given week, it can be easy to miss important news and interesting events,” Chaudhary wrote on the White House blog.
The video also features behind-the-scenes footage of life in the White House, footage Compton said any network would love to get its hands on.
“Wouldn’t any of us love to cover a story like that,” Compton said. “But no, the White House has decided it will cover that story all by itself.”
So if White House officials can cover and post stories online themselves, then what’s left for the reporters to do?
“I still do every day what I did 35 years ago,” Compton said. “I listen to the president. I take what he says, what he said yesterday, what advisers tell us and I put it together in an even-handed complete report.”
The role of a White House correspondent is still to report fair, balanced stories and present the audience with context and analysis so people can form their own opinions.
While Compton’s job hasn’t changed, she said the way Americans consume their news has.
“Americans can now go on the internet and see the news as it is envisioned by the president’s own team,” Compton said. “My fear is that people will look at that and say, ‘that’s all the news I need,’ not realizing that’s news from the administration, not a mainstream journalist’s report. I hope the American people don’t consider this a substitute for good American journalism.”