Friday, April 3, 2009

Speed Diplomacy

President Obama joined the rest of the gaggle of world leaders for the Group of 20 economic summit yesterday.

Prior to the official start of the summit today, President Obama made the rounds and used the day for separate meetings with many of the participants of the G-20 leaders, as well as official visits with the Prime Minister at Number 10 and the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

The evening national television news programs boiled the day down into a rapid montage of scenes, in a very American view of President Obama as a global leader exercising diplomacy. Here was President Obama with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and wait! He is now outside of Number 10 with both Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Obama standing with them.

Click! Now the President is sitting and chatting with President Hu Jintao of China. Click! Now the President is chatting amiably with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. Click! Now the President is in a very serious discussion with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and suddenly there was the President and Mrs. Obama standing with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip in Buckingham palace.

Like speed dating, the television coverage made the pre-summit day seem like a race around the roster of which delegation was in London early. In reality, this is a traditional use of a summit and opportunities for the President to discuss a host of issues of interest between the delegations.

Unfortunately, diplomacy makes for bad TV but like speed dating, America had the opportunity to quickly see the President representing the US in his first overseas trip. While there was more coverage of the potential of conflict in the G-20 summit and possible outcomes, the flash of images of the President was certainly a good thing for President Obama.

While coverage overall was very brief, the television news outlets were able to switch over into more important topics – the I-POD gift given by the President to Queen Elizabeth, and protestors clashing with police.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Our President is Wired (and Wireless)

Apologies to fans of West of the West Wing for a lack of postings last week. Busy week!

Last Thursday, President Obama went where no President had gone before. He hosted the White House’s first Presidential on-line question and answer session with the American people. The media were the quiet ones on the sidelines of the Roosevelt Room.

The White House solicited questions from American’s on-line and then boiled down some of the possible 100,000 questions from more than 92,000 questioners. In order to allow everyone a chance to feel they could be heard, the final cut of questions was made by an on-line vote and millions of people participated. More than 64,000 people went on-line to watch the event, live.

President Obama becomes the first President to fully embrace the power of the Internet and new media as powerful tools in his communication arsenal. The use of these new tools were honed during the 2008 Presidential Campaign and not abandoned once the White House was achieved.

The President and his team are still trying to find the best ways to employ direct communication to achieve results for their broad legislative objectives, but it is clear the President is comfortable with his ability to participate and use every means available for unfiltered and direct communication.

Presidential pioneers include President Theodore Roosevelt that fully understood and utilized print media to achieve his goals; President Franklin Roosevelt utilized broadcast radio for his messages and became the first broadcast media President. President Kennedy used television to both win the White House and used it successfully to foster his agenda. Taking that lead, Presidents Reagan and Clinton both honed the use of television as a way to successfully communicate directly with the American public. President Clinton was the first President to begin using the Internet as well.

The difference with president Obama is his ability to fully use a communication tool that is completely unfiltered. President’s can appear on television and radio in direct addresses to the public. Those broadcasts are limited due to the impact of the loss of commercial airtime to the commercial network providers of the broadcasts. Those broadcasts often include commentary by television news hosts and interviews with Congressional members or others having opposing views.

Live Presidential press conferences give Presidents the opportunity to deliver their specific messages, however it also allows reporters to question the President on any other issue and the focus can shift due to those questions and answers away from the message the President wanted to deliver.

The Internet, e-mail and other on-line events allow for an almost complete managing of the message coming from the White House directly to those watching, listening and reading. There is still a lot of refinement about how to do this best, how to measure results and how much is too much.

Regardless, a new communication frontier has been crossed and hopefully will bring a new era of citizen involvement and hopefully participation in the governing of the country.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The ‘Death’ of Newspapers: a Three Way Debate

On Wednesday of last week, The Seattle Post – Intelligencer, a 145 year-old daily newspaper quit printing. The paper is now a daily on-line news source focusing on local news, issues and events with a much reduced staff.

The Seattle daily is not alone. Newspapers throughout the nation are stopping or changing formats. Declines in advertising, classified and readership have created a national death knoll for print media.

Some newspapers will certainly survive, but many cities and towns across the nation have lost their print media outlets. The surviving outlets have severely reduced staff and coverage. Many papers are becoming “rip and read” outlets, meaning they are filling their pages with Associated Press (AP), Reuters, NY Times and other outlet wire stories.

The Los Angeles Times’ media correspondent, Jim Rainey, wrote a great column last week (March 20, 2009) titled, “Newspaper cuts open door to more political trickery.” You can read it here.

Jim Rainey’s article is interesting and it shows how the loss of print media coverage in political campaigns can provide some political consultants opportunities to manipulate coverage to their advantage with the loss of trained reporters, or just because there is minimal possible coverage. The political consultants interviewed also point out it is a double-edged sword and can also hurt a campaign, as much as it can help it.

As a political practitioner, I can see some advantage to being able to push stories or create other avenues of messaging – if you have the financial resources to do it.

On the other hand, I also see now what the loss of professional coverage can do for a candidate lacking resources to get positions or initiatives out. Emaciated newsrooms allow many issues and accusations to go unchallenged. It also prevents new initiatives and positions to get coverage - all of which could be a significant factor for the outcome of an election.

The article by Jim Rainey cites a study by Princeton University economists on the loss of a local news outlet and the decline of voter turnout in local elections in Cincinnati, Ohio. The study was posted here.

I do not think the loss of coverage is a good thing in any way, shape or form. The growth of blogging and Internet news sources is a great source of some equity for people to recoup some of the power of traditional media outlets and their influence in political campaigns and elections.

The lack of professional standards, commitment to journalistic ethics, and ability to get stories right makes this shift away from traditional media frightening and a tragic loss not just in politics.

It is hard to see how this will change in the future and the ridiculous popular phrase seems appropriate when thinking about the death of professional journalism – “It is what it is….”

Chuck Dalldorf

…and not only in the States! The threatened demise of local newspapers through the BBC’s intended local network was enough to send tails spinning at Westminster and the good ‘ol Beeb had to row back faster than a varsity boat crew!

The recognition of the importance of local print media to local communities around the country is partly a reflection of their political role: at elections they provide sustained coverage of candidate’s, their messages and their mess-ups. In between the cyclical political bun-fights local papers play a key role in supporting community cohesiveness with political campaigns on topics as wide as saving the local football club to recognising the symbolic importance of local landmarks threatened with removal or demolition.

Use of the emerging technologies is fine – isn’t it appropriate for politicians to be able to “twitter”?! – but there is something reassuring about the weekly search for the local gossip in the court column!

The third critical aspect of the local newspaper is to regularly hold local politicians to account as well as illuminate the populace on the antics of those politicians that are elected to far off places - such as Edinburgh, London or Brussels. Without this scrutiny, seen through the perspective of the local press (and often, therefore the public) our politicians would feel less connected to their local communities!

Of course, recent trends in Scotland have seen a merging of the once cherished distinction between local newspapers and the big national titles, particularly with the Johnston Group’s take-over of the Scotsman. It is too early to tell whether this particular entry in the marriage section will present opportunities for technological cross-platform innovation or whether the next we read about it will be as an obituary!

Ross Martin

The death of traditional media is unwelcome news for many reasons. Chief among them is the loss of jobs in these turbulent economic times – it’s the last thing local economies need at the moment.

Yet, does it sound the death knell for democracy by removing an effective check and balance as Ross pointed out? Open the door to the manipulation of political coverage as Chuck testifies? Or even result in a ‘tragic loss’?

I’m not sure.

Both Ross and Chuck, while not oblivious to the effectiveness of new media, present a somewhat rose-tinted view of traditional media. Aren’t newspapers already subject to manipulation by political consultants? Yes. Is the death of professional journalism a bad thing? Yes, but it died a long time ago (they are some exceptions). Do newspapers provide an objective analysis/coverage of elections that is reliable? No – check out Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky. Do they support community cohesiveness? If they do they’re a whisper in a wind. Do they hold politicians to account? Hardly – the bottom line is sales; not ethics.

The growth of new media has its dangers. They exclude scores of people who as yet remain technophobic and most blogs and forums lack rigor. But isn’t this part of their charm? Remember they don’t exactly bill themselves as the bastions of objectivity.

Isn’t it time, rather than clutch longingly for a lost friend, to look to the future, seize the opportunities and frame the discussion? Isn’t it time, in other words and with tongue firmly in cheek, to call for a Universal Declaration of Blogging Ethics?

In tandem with a grass-roots campaign, Barack Obama has from day one recognized that the future is in new media. His integrated e-campaign left few western (and others) homes untouched. In the guise of Organizing for America the campaign continues and has proved remarkably successful in getting its message across and more importantly in bringing communities together.

Instead of the death of traditional media we should be focusing on the birth of a new kind of politics.

Barry McCulloch

Monday, March 23, 2009

Using all the tools

On the surface, it seems to be a rather trite moment on national television.

March in the US brings the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, a 32-team elimination tournament called, “March Madness.” The college basketball tournament is broadcast on national television and is everywhere.

There is more sports betting around March Madness tournament than any other sporting event in the US. Office pools with brackets are distributed everywhere and people that know nothing about basketball are pressured into playing to help fill out sheets (for anything from 25 cents a bracket on up) for the tournament.

This week, President Obama was featured on the popular national sports network on cable television, ESPN. The President hosted an ESPN correspondent into the White House and had an empty March Madness whiteboard set up with empty brackets, big enough to be easily read on television.

The President talked about his love of basketball (which is very true and the President throughout his campaign snuck away daily for quick choose up games for exercise and relaxation) and on live television that was shown on other networks as well, walked through his picks for which teams would advance through the tournament and why.

It was another brilliant and strategic moment demonstrating the President and his team’s media savvy in keeping the President outside of the Beltway.

As we mentioned in the last entry, the Beltway is the motorway surrounding the District of Columbia, and it has become both a real and symbolic circle. People doing living and doing business in DC become consumed by the insider’s view of politics, politics and government operations from being so close to the core.
While the President only talked about the NCAA Basketball Tournament, his ESPN appearance was a reminder that the President is still “one of the guys” and is in touch with daily life – the good, the bad and the ugly as the country works through this huge economic crisis. Watching the President run through his tournament picks and talk about why he thought teams would advance or fail, was a moment where you could imagine yourself getting skunked in the office pool by the woman or man who is smarter, confident, funnier and knows the game.

The same way he is approaching the way to work through the economic crisis. Sometimes message opportunities come in strange packages.

Seeing and Using Stars

President Obama has been very strategic about his ability to get his message outside of the Beltway.

The Beltway is the motorway surrounding the District of Columbia, and it has become both a real and symbolic circle. People doing living and doing business in DC become consumed by the insider’s view of politics, politics and government operations from being so close to the core.

Many political initiatives are driven by the inside the Beltway mentality.

Frequently, the relativity of those thoughts, ideas and rumors often don’t stand the test and become successful once they try to move outside of the Beltway.

US Presidents have frequently jumped on Air Force One to head out into the country at different times to get out of the tightening grasp of the inside the Beltway mentality. Sometimes President’s seek comfort getting out of the Beltway when they are under fire and seek the safety of core constituencies and to be seen on TV with supporters.

President Obama has been using his trips outside of the Beltway to bring messages about his legislative and economic agendas outside of the Beltway media and away from the negative vortex of Congressional members opposed to his initiatives. The President has been doing interviews with local and regional media outlets on his trip, has been hosting town hall style forums with voters and has been seen on national TV, heard on radio and is photographed around the excitement and spectrum of a popular US President arriving in Cities across America.

The usual inside the Beltway cynicism of the President or anyone in politics delivering the message President Obama has been carrying – one of optimism, caution and acknowledging the tough economic times America faces – is replaced by people across the country looking desperately for an acknowledgement that Washington DC knows what is happening out here AND there is reason to believe this country will find a way out of these deep troubles. A message that is resonating as President Obama carries it out beyond the beltway noose of the Beltway.

The past two days found the President in Southern California. President Obama hosted his first West Coast town hall in Costa Mesa in Orange County. For California political followers, Orange County is essentially the headquarters for all things GOP in California. While it is a County with the reputation for huge wealth, synthetic bodies, an eternal sun and the heart of the state Republican party –the 2008 Presidential election saw Orange County turning out a huge new Democratic vote with newly registered immigrants and other OC residents who have never been participants in California politics.

On Thursday, the President was joined at a town hall forum on the economy with movie star and current Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governor (who many California media outlets and political followers call “The Governator”) and President both were both gracious and most laudatory of each other. Governor Schwarzenegger was an early supporter of the President’s economic stabilization efforts and the state is being rewarded with a substantial amount of economic stimulus money.

Also Thursday, the President made an appearance on the nationally broadcast “Tonight Show,” hosted by comedian Jay Leno on NBC. Many Presidential candidates, including then candidate Obama have been on the show, and several former Presidents have also been on the program. President Obama was the first sitting President to make an appearance on this hugely popular national program.

The President had some funny lines, but his appearance was mostly to deliver the message he is carrying outside the Beltway. The President was very serious in his discussion with host Leno in discussing the President’s economic stimulus efforts and why he feels optimistic about the economy while recognizing the depth of pain throughout the country. The President was right on message and delivered it way outside the Beltway.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know About Earmarks (1)

President Obama signed a $410 billion appropriations bill into law this week, keeping the U.S. government operating until the start of the new federal Fiscal Year on 1 October. Why a mid-year appropriation of this size and magnitude is necessary is another story. The Congressional actions passing the bill and sending it to the President has renewed the unending chatter about that nasty e- word.

The outcry on the Hill and also in The White House against the procedure whereby a Member of Congress (in either House) designates specific program funding in an appropriation bill has become very shrill. In part because the President, while on the campaign trail last year, demanded earmark reform as part of his call for Washington to stop “doing business as usual.”

Also adding to the media flurry of stories about earmarks this week was scrutiny on what was funded. Every media organization wants to be the first to discover the new “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark (an earmark for appropriation inserted by former US Senator from Alaska Ted Stevens). Every appropriation bill seems to have had a stinker of a program, or some bizarre initiative funded through an earmark that becomes the poster child of the continued frenzy on pork spending and those nasty earmarks.

“Do as I say, not as I do,” has always been the contradictory stance on the subject of earmarks. Congressional members of both parties are often seen on national news criticizing programs receiving earmarks, although many of the same members have also inserted funding for programs for their districts. It seems that for Congress, their constituents and many media organizations, earmarks are evil and programs considered pork spending if the programs are outside their district and state.

Members of Congress have and always will be advocates for funding on projects in their state. They are elected to represent their constituents and those members should be working to ensure fair and equitable spending of federal dollars in their districts. If Members did not do this, they would not be in office very long. This is not shocking news and is universal in all politics.

Yes, there are often insertions of earmarks that occur at the eleventh hour without scrutiny that have more to do with pure political power than they do with equitable funding. Earmarks are not the problem of any one party, ideology or Member. There are ways to affect a better process when it comes to earmarks. Both Houses can enact procedures making the earmark process fairer, more transparent and subject to evaluation and qualification. That process can be achieved internally as a matter of House rules, not requiring legislation or any painfully long process.

The sham of the show of disgust on the floor of both Houses against earmarks is ridiculous and somehow avoids getting to the solution of creating procedural process in fixing real problems. The smoke and mirror show is used when there is a desire by whatever party is in the minority to slow or derail certain appropriation bills and has seldom ever been an attempt to review the earmark process. Members have been shown complaining about earmarks in bills, while those same bills contained their own earmarks!

Yes, there are programs and projects inserted into appropriations bills that never should have been there. The authors are powerful Chairs of Committees, have favors owed and all of those standard political IOU’s that come into play in the legislative process.

So, if Members are serious they should fix the rules and move on.

The President should not get bogged down in this discussion and leave the rules of the House to Congress. The complaints about earmarks are a distraction. Many of the programs and projects funded in the bill President Obama signed this week are in keeping with the objective of jump-starting the economy and bring jobs and funding to needed federal programs.

1. But were afraid to ask! (Apologies to Author Woody Allen)

Monday, March 16, 2009


President Obama has been in office just over 50 days. In this short time, several media pundits and outlets are attacking the president’s extensive legislative agenda saying it is too much, too soon. The financial pundits are blaming the President for the stock market’s unprecedented loss of value since January.

Media attacks already after 50 days in office?

Welcome to the White House, Mr. President.

During his weekly radio address on Saturday, the President made points to remind Americans the financial crisis began 18-months prior to his occupancy in the White House. West Wing aides on the national television shows Sunday all spent time reminding people of what President Obama inherited from the previous administration – the little things like a global fiscal crisis, two wars and deteriorating global relationships.

While it is good to answer critics, I am hopeful the President and his team move back to focusing on the agenda ahead. President Obama and his team have enacted more laws and Executive policy changes in the first 50 days than the previous administration did in months. Media criticism is expected and pundits egging on for a fight are standard fair.

While there is a propensity to respond back it is fraught with danger and can be a distraction many elected officials get entangled in that derails initiatives, policies and drags governments to a halt.

There is a balance in media response and being able to answer questions and make points. It is critical to do so with a big picture perspective and not get sucked into the mud. The stock market’s ability to rise or fall is far beyond what happens in the White House. The market’s reactions to unemployment and other economic indicators including reported corporate financial statements are all inputs affecting Wall Street’s daily bottom line. To blame this President for the state of the market and the national economy is ridiculous and irresponsible. Measuring what the market has does in the president’s first 50-days against any other President’s first 50 days is just silly and irrelevant.

However, the White House needs to equally not try to play this game. You can’t say the market’s drop is not a product of the President, if you try to take credit for Wall Street’s sudden climb at the end of the week. The President and his team need to keep their eye on the ball and move the President’s message forward and not backward.

The balancing act the President and all elected officials need to master is the trick in knowing when to respond to media criticism, how and even more important – when it is better to ignore it. A tough trick to pull off and one has to have a steel stomach and ego to do it.