The White House Tames Web Journalists
Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
Last Thursday, the White House invited 13 reporters from Web publications to an on-the-record briefing with Chief of Staff John Podesta. For 45 minutes in his office, Podesta fielded questions about the administration's legislative priorities during the last few weeks of this congressional term. The meeting was a landmark, in a modest way: The chief of staff routinely conducts such briefings for other media. This was the first time he held one for Internet reporters. But what it showed, I think, was less cyberjournalism's power to transform politics as we know it than the ability of a political institution—in this case the White House—to tame and routinize the Web.
Matt Drudge introduced the Clinton White House to Web journalism (see: Sidney Blumenthal libel suit, Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton's supposed illegitimate child, etc.). But as online journalism has expanded and matured, the White House press operation has embraced it. In 1998, Mark Kitchens was appointed the first White House liaison to the Internet press. He now deals with more than 150 Web news organizations and is attentive to their care and feeding. The White House has allowed news sites to put cameras in the briefing room. Kitchens has helped arrange four presidential Webcasts on tech issues. He has gotten Web journalists on Air Force One. Kitchens and White House spokesman Jake Siewert say they may begin conducting regular briefings for Internet reporters.
The White House seeks extensive press contact toward the end of every congressional session in order to publicize the president's legislative agenda. Podesta has held similar briefings for regional newspapers and wire reporters, Siewert notes. But the administration decided to include the online media this time for three reasons. First, Web reporters seldom come to the White House, so Siewert and Kitchens thought this would be a good chance to give them an inside view. Second, the White House hoped the Web sites would reach the growing number of people who get their news online. And finally, administration officials want to harness the speed of the Web, which could be critical during the final days of the term. "At the end of a congressional session when everything is happening so fast, online media are really valuable because it gets out there immediately and puts pressure on the Republicans," Siewert says.
The Podesta briefing showed how the White House is attempting to domesticate the Net press. Kitchens invited a very respectable crew: a mix of general news sites (MSNBC.com, CNN.com, ABCNews.com, WashingtonPost.com, USAToday.com), tech-news sites (theStandard.com, CNET.com, National Journal's Technology Daily, Newsbytes.com), and political news sites (Speakout.com and Voter.com, as well as Slate.com). Rowdier and more radical sites didn't rate.
The well-behaved reporters from these publications were treated to an unremarkable presentation. Podesta made the administration's case for three key issues: raising the minimum wage, passing a patients' bill of rights, and adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. He also spent a bit of time on the tech issues that concerned many of the reporters present, especially a bill that would increase the number of H1-B visas (which allow high-tech companies to hire skilled immigrants). Podesta broke no news, never strayed a centimeter off message, and made no inopportune comments about congressional Republicans.
The online journalists responded to this very bland meal with the docility the White House surely hoped for. Most of the Web publications, including WashingtonPost.com, USAToday.com, and TheStandard.com, understandably ignored the briefing. But by Friday afternoon, CNN.com and ABCnews.com had posted stories on their politics pages retailing Podesta's talking points. The articles depicted a White House striking boldly against intransigent congressional Republicans. ABCnews.com's " 'The Heat Is On': White House Girds for Final Legislative Push" had the administration "vowing to push forward on a handful of key legislative priorities," then outlined—without any GOP rebuttal—Podesta's plans for each of the key issues.
CNN's story also described the White House as "girding for … hard-nosed combat" and said "Podesta presented an image of a White House staff with shirt sleeves rolled up in preparation for the tough work." It too summarized Podesta's views—including his sharp criticism of GOP positions on the minimum wage, the patients' bill of rights, and prescription-drug benefits—without any Republican reaction. (CNN's and ABC's responses, it should be noted, were not significantly lamer than a regional newspaper story on the same briefing would have been.) CNET concentrated on the high-tech issues, relaying Podesta's comments about H1-B's, privacy, and the Human Genome Project with little analysis. Newsbytes.com reported the administration's hopes for H1-B reform.
In short, the coverage was limited, but kind—a case study in the benefits of accommodation. The White House offered Net journalists a small prize—access to the chief of staff. It was rewarded with nothing but online sunshine.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.