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Jewish World Review
July 8, 2011
6 Tamuz, 5771
Obama meets the tweeple
Watching Barack Obama at the world’s first Twitter town hall was like watching a slugger in a batting cage. If anything came even near the plate, he smacked it for a hit.
Not even a high, inside fastball directed at his head by Republican House Speaker John Boehner brushed him back much. “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?” Boehner tweeted.
That’s the corrected version, anyway. The real version had some typos or electronic hiccups like a lot of tweets do. Tweeting is a little like appearing on live television: You can take a long time to think about what you want to say, but it’s real tempting not to.
In any case, Obama fouled off the first pitch — “First of all, John obviously needs to work on his typing skills” — but then made solid contact. “This is a slightly skewed question,” the president said. The “Republicans are resistant” to making necessary changes, and he has not “gotten the cooperation I’d like to see.”
And then the kee-rack of the bat: “Eventually, I’m sure the Speaker will see the light.”
The Speaker was not there to respond. Nobody who asked a question was. Which is why the president never struck out. Twittering — typing questions of 140 characters or fewer on the Internet — has become a national mania, with some 110 million tweets being sent by tweeple into the twitterverse each day.
I have been tweeting for less than eight weeks under the name @politicoroger and am totally hooked. It is a medium made for the wiseacre kid who was always made to stand in the hall because he talked too much in class.
But the tweets that got through to the White House Wednesday were carefully “moderated” by, in the words of the official White House release, a “team of seasoned Twitter users.” Not that they were White House shills. Drew Cline, tweeting under @DrewHampshire, was a moderator, and he is the conservative editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The idea of the Twitter town hall, similar to presidential debates in which questions are submitted by email, is based on the “wisdom of crowds” notion that if enough ordinary citizens ask questions, they will be superior to or, at least equal to, the questions asked by “experts,” in this case the White House press corps.
Did it succeed? Well, sometimes. Because the tweets were moderated — and some 169,000 were submitted — it is hard to know exactly what the vast “crowd” really wanted to know if it could get any question to the president.
Further, expertise is not something to be sniffed at. For all the grief they take — much of it from the twitterverse — most White House reporters are extremely knowledgeable, hardworking and often lay experts on domestic and foreign affairs.
When Slate, one of the best sites on the Internet, was founded in 1996, it drew a lot of negative reaction because it was using paid, professional writers, which was contrary to the ethos of the early Internet. Anybody can write, critics said, so why use professionals?
Slate’s first editor, Michael Kinsley, responded that anybody could cook, but when he went to a restaurant, he wanted a professional chef in the kitchen. (Kinsley probably said it better than that.)
And the tweeters were at a disadvantage Wednesday: They were limited to questions of 140 characters. A White House reporter can take 140 characters to clear his throat.
The real problem, as with all Internet town halls, is that there was no opportunity for follow-up questions. The follow-up question is the key to good interviewing, pinning down the subject after he tries to slither away with a nonanswer to the initial question.
Which is why presidents often hate follow-up questions and have tried to limit or even eliminate them from news conferences.
The other problem was that Obama was not limited to 140 characters in his answers. He should have been. That could have made for a spectacular event. (According to Michael Shear of The New York Times, Obama averaged 2,099 characters in his answers, which equaled 14.99 Twitter messages.)
As it was, the president often gave very long answers, and after about an hour the cable channels cut away from him, some preferring to have talking heads talking about the live news conference rather than continuing to broadcast the live news conference.
With no follow-up questions and unlimited time to answer, Obama often fell into his “professor” mode. Asked about education, Obama began with: “Look, when America went to an industrial economy from an agrarian economy…” and then went on for quite some time, concluding that “education has always paid off” but we can’t pay teachers “poverty wages” or have schools “with rats running around.”
By the time he had finished the answer, you had forgotten the question. Home run!
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