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We’ve written about how social media and the “democratization of distribution” that the web allows has turned companies like Tesla into media entities in their own right, and has done the same thing for armies during conflicts like Israel’s recent attacks on the Gaza Strip. In the same vein, social tools allow governments to become media entities as well — and according to a piece at Politico, the Obama administration has adopted those tools with a vengeance. But is that a net benefit for democracy, or an attempt by the government to control the press?
President Obama, who was celebrated by some as the “first internet president” after taking office — thanks to his use of a BlackBerry, as well as various web-based open government initiatives — has showed even more flair for the web and social media in the past year or so, in part by hosting events such as the Twitter town hall in 2011 and a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” feature during the election campaign last fall, in which he took questions from users of the online community.
More open, or more controlling of the media?
While all of these tools and strategies make the president seem more approachable and human to some, however, to members of the traditional press it is part of an attempt by the Obama government to do an end-run around the media and get its message out directly without any fear of being challenged (although the traditional media seem to have had no problem covering up the existence of a drone base in Saudi Arabia when asked to do so). According to Politico:
“President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House [and] the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).”
As the Politico piece notes, governments have always tried to engineer their own messages, whether through hokey PR stunts like Calvin Coolidge’s radio addresses or government-produced propaganda shown in movie theaters, or through friendly reporters who are willing to write uncritically — as many have accused writer Judith Miller of doing at the New York Times when she covered the build-up to the Iraq War. But social media provides so many more tools (and real-time ones) for governments to use.
Just as Elon Musk of Tesla used his blog — and some of the user data that his electric car produced during a New York Times review — to argue his case against the newspaper, the Obama government has almost as many tools (if not more) at its disposal as any of the media entities it used to rely on for coverage. It can produce and distribute news stories, audio interviews and video clips just as well as anyone, and media companies who have cut costs are always looking for free content. One photographer said the White House has “built its own content distribution network.”
The balance of power has shifted
As Politico describes it, the “balance of power between the White House and the press has tipped unmistakeably towards the government.” The Obama administration is said to be eschewing unscripted scrums in favor of orchestrated media campaigns like the Reddit AMA, which was widely criticized for not being as hard-hitting as a traditional interview (although I took issue with that description). Former Clinton-era press secretary Mike McCurry told Politico:
“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press [but now] the White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”
That word “cooperative” sums it up in a nutshell: in the past, governments had to cooperate with the media because they needed it to get their message out, just as companies like Tesla used to. But that’s not the case any more — or at least not as much as it used to be. The playing field has been leveled. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for democracy, or for society in general? Is more information better, even if it comes directly from the government?