Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

"And The Twitter Goes Wild"

A lot of people hate on Twitter, and for good reason. One of its most interesting effects in media, however, is how live tweets can impact television commentators more than traditional methods of audience feedback.

In this recent clip on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," for example, Mika Brzezinski anticipates Twittersphere blowback to a potential misreading of a comment by her co-host, Joe Scarborough:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Scarborough was arguing that the political class's obsession with social issues, like gay marriage and abortion, is detracting from the economic agenda, and he also did not want to be characterized as believing those social issues were not important at all.

The medium matters, though, because TV anchors are increasingly more responsive to their audience on Twitter than any other medium.

Scarborough posts about 16 messages per day on Twitter. He uses the service most for responding directly to viewers -- about 63 percent of his tweets are replies (designated by the "@"). An analysis of Scarborough's tweeting from TweetsStats.com shows that he posts the most messages in the 10am hour, which is just after his show ends.

While a TV host could also reply to viewer mail and email, that kind of one-to-one communication is time-prohibitive. And where two-line emails might seem curt, Twitter's mandated brevity enables a different type of exchange, with feedback impacting how anchors and journalists approach their work, and their audience.

LIVE VIDEO: Feed of Health Care Summit from WhiteHouse.gov

The White House is broadcasting a live feed of Thursday's Health Care Summit.


Obama's Health Summit Faces Transparency, Twitter

President Obama promised transparency in the bipartisan health care huddle at Blair House, and one open government group is doubling down on the offer.

The Sunlight Foundation, a webby, nonpartisan transparency organization, announced it will route around the traditional media to provide its own interactive broadcast of the proceedings, with information that many TV channels can't (or won't) share. Jake Brewer, the group's engagement director, says that as each politician speaks, Sunlight's website will compliment video footage with "campaign contributions that the person speaking has received, their connections to lobbyists and industry, personal finances, and key votes that the leaders have made on health care in the past." Like C-SPAN meets Common Cause.

Beyond the bird-dogging, the effort also simply provides a wired hub for people to communicate about the proceedings in real time, since it fuses blogging and Twitter conversation with the video feed. That picks up on a trend that goes well beyond politics. As the Times' Brian Stelter reported on Wednesday, social media networks like Twitter are becoming the new place for people in different places to watch televised events together. About 14 percent of people watching this year's Super Bowl were simultaneously online, and industry experts think social media is improving ratings:


NBC says it thinks the habits of people [watching and using social media] partly explain why the ratings for the Olympics are up noticeably. “People want to have something to share,” Alan Wurtzel, the head of research for NBC Universal, said from Vancouver. He said the effects of online conversations were “important for all big event programming, and also, honestly, for all of television going forward.” If viewers cannot be in the same room, the next best thing is a chat room or something like it.

That’s what MTV found last fall during the Video Music Awards: the Twitterati were in a tizzy when Kanye West snatched a microphone from Taylor Swift in the middle of her acceptance speech. The show had an average of nine million viewers, its best performance in six years. The Recording Academy, which presents the Grammys, mounted a digital campaign to promote the awards show this year ... the academy’s vice president for digital media said it was not a coincidence that the awards show notched a 35 percent gain over last year’s audience totals.


For entertainment companies, of course, ratings are the whole point. Obama needs to turn Thursday's audience into supporters.

New Effort Calls on Obama & GOP to Re-Up on Question Sessions

President Obama has labored to unite different political factions with policy compromises and conciliatory speeches. But it was Obama's incisive grappling at the Republican retreat last week that really lit a bipartisan fire, drawing politicos and commentators of all stripes to call for more questions sessions for the President and the opposition party.

In "Left-Right Want 'Obama' Question Time," Politico's Mike Allen reports on what may be the first effort uniting conservative tax warrior Grover Norquist and our own Katrina venden Heuvel: 

A politically diverse group of bloggers, commentators, techies and politicos on Wednesday will launch an online campaign, Demand Question Time, urging President Barack Obama and GOP congressional leaders to hold regular, televised conversations like the extraordinary exchange in Baltimore on Friday. Supporters include Grover Norquist, Joe Trippi, Mark McKinnon, Ed Morrissey, Ari Melber, Katrina vanden Heuvel ... Eli Pariser ... Mark McKinnon, Markos Moulitsas and Ed Morrissey. The steering committee is made up of Micah Sifry, David Corn, Mike Moffo, Mindy Finn, Jon Henke and Glenn Reynolds.

Demand Question Time invites visitors to sign a petition: "We live in a world that increasingly demands more dialogue than monologue. President Obama's January 29th question-and-answer session with Republican leaders gave the public a remarkable window into the state of our union and governing process. It was riveting and educational. The exchanges were substantive, civil and candid. And in a rare break from our modern politics, sharp differences between elected leaders were on full public display without rancor or ridicule. ... "So we call on President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner to hold these sessions regularly - and allow them to be broadcast and webcast live and without commercial interruption, sponsorship or intermediaries."

On Wednesday, the effort was the top headline at Huffington Post, linking to an article detailing the effort by co-founder David Corn, a Mother Jones writer and former Washington editor of The Nation.

But White House adviser David Axelrod already gave the concept a light brushback earlier this week, Allen reports:

POLITICO asked White House senior adviser David Axelrod about the possibility of regular question time on Monday, before the online campaign was announced, and he said the president's aides were more likely to look for one-shot opportunities for Obama to engage with Republicans. "The thing that made Friday interesting . was the spontaneity," Axelrod said. "If you slip into a kind of convention, then conventionality will overtake the freshness of that."

The campaign is circulating an online petition, and hosting, naturally, a Twitter feed for progress reports.


Noting Setbacks, Plouffe Returns in New Obama Video

David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager who was recently tapped for an "expanded role" advising the White House, just cut a video briefing Obama supporters on plans for the coming election year.

While acknowledging that Obama's organizing operation faced "fits and starts" last year, Plouffe argued that the White House was "still on the doorstep of passing healthcare reform," and he announced some new numbers for the Democrats' ground game. One million new people joined Obama's Organizing for America (OFA) over the past year, Plouffe said, and supporters have now pledged to volunteer 450,000 hours in the coming year. (Have the Tea Parties registered contact information for a million people?) The results are from an online survey of Obama supporters. The survey found over 70 percent of respondents want to support "education reform" and "job creation" in 2010, while over 80 percent are still fired up for health care. (If at first you don't succeed...)

Plouffe also touched on a few areas where supporters thought Organizing for America came up short, pledging to provide more detailed information and communication about legislative and political strategy.

Beyond the video, which is below, OFA is also distributing a two-page handout with more stats -- like OFA held a whopping 819 local events per week around the country last year -- and discussion of "important lessons." "Politically, we know that even our best efforts don't always result in victory," the handout notes, "but we've learned from each hard-fought race and are ready to put those lessons to work in 2010."

That may trigger thoughts of Massachusetts, but as readers here know, OFA's largest failure last year stemmed from the White House's flawed legislative strategy for health care. (More on that in my report on OFA's first year, The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age.)

Beyond Plouffe's increased visibility -- a no-brainer, given his popularity with grassroots Democrats -- the President is still spending his most precious resource, time, on OFA.

On Thursday afternoon, Obama is scheduled to do a live video "conversation" with OFA members who RSVP on OFA's website.


Plouffe's new video is below, followed by Melber's OFA report:

Report Year One of Organizing for America Melber

If It's Sunday, It's Meet The Facts

Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor and new media innovator, has been agitating for some fact-driven reforms to the Sunday political talk shows. This Sunday, he got some traction.

Rosen suggests a weekly accountability segment, to check the pols and pundits who populate the pulpit on Sundays. "Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday," he advised. Then the factually challenged would face consequences -- done right, this kind of segment could create its own news on Wednesday -- and repeat offenders might even lose their status as repeat guests. Rosen explains:

Now I don't contend this would solve the problem of the Sunday shows, which is structural. But it might change the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was [BS]ing us more could expect to hear about it from Meet the Press staff on Wednesday. The midweek fact check (in the spirit of Politifact.com...) might, over time, exert some influence on the speakers on Sunday. At the very least, it would guide the producers in their decisions about whom to invite back.

This Sunday, Politico's Michael Calderone followed up on Rosen's idea in a thorough, 1,740-word article, surveying reactions from TV figures and new media people. The coverage matters because without it, Rosen -- just like the Sunday show audience -- has very little dialogue with the Sunday shows. (He complained about this in his original essay, noting that MTP's executive producer "never replies" to anything he writes, despite maintaining a presence on Twitter. An ABC reporter briefly replied to his idea.) Yet once an article was in the works, MTP not only responded, it issued a statement from host David Gregory praising the idea and committing to discuss it with his staff:

The [fact-checking] suggestion by... Rosen kicked around Twitter and the blogosphere with such force that the show's host, David Gregory, said in a statement to POLITICO that it was a "good idea" and his staff is "going to talk about it."

That's a big shift from refusing to respond at all. And while it's an improvement, it also shows how these programs tend to be more responsive to other members of the media than to their audience. (Blogger Nisha Chittal tackles that angle today.)

The bottom line is that the Sunday shows still drive Washington politics and retain rare interview leverage over political leaders. The fractured media environment enables politicians to handpick most media appearances, if they want, avoiding aggressive questioning for years at a time. But even the most powerful candidates and politicians submit to Sunday grillings -- Calderone notes that Sarah Palin is one of the only national candidates to boycott the shows entirely. (And we all remember how her media strategy turned out.) So it's a real loss when politicians can dissemble through these appearances without any rigorous follow up.

UPDATE: Calderone posted a follow up item on Monday:

...The Nation's Ari Melber noted that NBC didn't respond to Jay Rosen's fact-check suggestion that he addressed to "Meet the Press" EP Betsy Fischer a couple weeks ago, but David Gregory responded in a statement for my piece."That's a big shift from refusing to respond at all," Melber wrote. "And while it's an improvement, it also shows how these programs tend to be more responsive to other members of the media than to their audience."

While I think it's good that big-name journalists, producers and broadcast networks jump on the Twitter bandwagon, the public will notice whether it's being used to primarily promote content rather than responding to suggestions or constructive criticism -- a "one-way medium," as Rosen put it. (Amidst my own self-promotion on Twitter, I try to push others' pieces out there and engage with users when possible).

Nisha Chittal, over on Mediaite, addresses the current use of Twitter among Sunday show hosts and provides a number of suggestsions for incorporating social media in the long-running programs.

We may be living in the YouTube age, but from the look of most Sunday shows you'd never know it. Remember the 2008 presidential election debates, where CNN and YouTube asked citizens to submit questions to ask of the candidates, and then featured selected video questions during the debate? Would it kill us to allow citizens to submit questions to the newsmakers and politicians on Meet The Press, Face The Nation, and This Week? Whether it's via Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube videos, allowing citizens to ask questions would give them a connection to the shows, engage them, and allow them to play a role in setting the news agenda. And talk show hosts like David Gregory and Bob Schieffer should help facilitate that citizen-politician connection. Although David Gregory, Bob Schieffer, and George Stephanopoulos all have Twitter accounts, their level of engagement with fans is very low. Schieffer and Stephanopoulos's Twitter accounts aren't even really them, but are merely RSS feeds of updates from their websites.

Axelrod Walks Back Insanity Defense on WH Blogger Call

The White House swiftly organized a blogger conference call on Thursday evening to rally support for health care reform, in a bid to stem fallout from progressives over recent compromises in the Senate. Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod devoted most of the time to taking questions, as bloggers from OpenLeft, Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars and Huffington Post pressed for answers on why recent concessions seemed so one-sided.

MyDD's Jonathan Singer said he was channeling another blogger, Duncan Black, to ask whether Axelrod's recent "insane" remark about Howard Dean's position also applied to Ben Nelson's willingness to scuttle the entire bill. "I'm not professionally qualified to judge insanity and maybe I should have used a different word," Axelrod said, and he noted that "everybody's a little on edge at this point" in the long legislative battle. He also stressed his respect for allies in the "progressive community," but reiterated his view that it would be "wrongheaded" to squash all of health care reform at this point, which is "infinitely better" than the status quo.

Asked about a dip in polling by Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, Axelrod reiterated his argument that the White House was focused on legislative progress, not polling or approval ratings. "We're not here to husband our poll numbers like a trophy on a shelf," he responded, and essentially rebuffed the argument that White House compromising has reduced enthusiasm and support from Obama's base.

Breaking: Bill Clinton Warns of "Colossal Blunder" on HCR

Former President Bill Clinton reengaged the health care debate on Thursday afternoon, amidst mounting progressive criticism of compromises in the Senate, saying that abandoning health care reform now would be a "colossal blunder."

In an official statement released by his office, Clinton said that while the current bill is not written exactly as he'd like, the "only responsible choice" is to move forward.

Full statement:


"America stands at a historic crossroads. At last, we are close to making real health insurance reform a reality. We face one critical, final choice, between action and inaction. We know where the path of inaction leads to: more uninsured Americans, more families struggling to keep up with skyrocketing premiums, higher federal budget deficits, and health costs so much higher than any other country's they will cripple us economically.


Our only responsible choice is the path of action. Does this bill read exactly how I would write it? No. Does it contain everything everyone wants? Of course not. But America can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And this is a good bill: it increases the security of those who already have insurance and gives every American access to affordable coverage; and contains comprehensive efforts to control costs and improve quality, with more information on best practices, and comparative costs and results. The bill will shift the power away from the insurance companies and into the hands of consumers.

Take it from someone who knows: these chances don't come around every day. Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder -- both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country."



Court Stops Congressional Attempt to Defund ACORN

ACORN finally won a round in its battle with Congress and the Obama administration on Friday, as a federal court ruled the United States acted unconstitutionally by targeting the organization in an attempt to withhold funding.

Judge Nina Gershon found that Congress' attempt to limit ACORN funding violated the Constitution's ban against government action that specifically singles out a person or group. That clause, officially known as a ban against "Bills of Attainder," is based on the idea that the legislative branch must not act like a court or jury in punishing individuals.

"The plaintiffs have raised a fundamental issue of separation of powers," writes Judge Gershon in the opinion. "They have been singled out by Congress for punishment that directly and immediately affects their ability to continue to obtain federal funding, in the absence of any judicial, or administrative, process adjudicating guilt."

Several observers, including MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow and The Nation's own Jeremy Scahill, had stressed that the ACORN bill was probably unconstitutional, and that the amount of money involved was quite small.

The Obama administration is defending the law in this case; it is expected to continue to argue against Friday's preliminary injunction in later court proceedings.

Change Comes to BarackObama.com

An Internet strategist for President Bush's reelection campaign and one of the few new media leaders for the GOP, Patrick Ruffini, cut a video Friday analyzing some new recruitment tactics over at BarackObama.com. Ruffini reports that Obama's website is carefully testing several messages and images to recruit new email registrations, using a splash page "for the first time since the election."

Tracking Obama's online marketing is likely to interest only junkies and insiders, of course, but Ruffini speculates that the move may indicate that Obama's aides are working harder to replenish his 13 million person email list. "It might actually be a sign that their subscription rate has certainly gone down," he says, suggesting that "the President's core supporters are maybe not as enthused by the lack of progress ... on health care reform or on Afghanistan."

While Obama supporters may be concerned about Afghanistan policy, the email list has not shied away from presenting the argument for more troops. This week, Vice President Biden emailed millions of Obama supporters a video of Obama's Westpoint address, asking them to watch and share the footage. "It's a clean break from the failed Afghanistan policy of the Bush administration," he wrote, "and a new, focused strategy that can succeed."

Here is Ruffini's new video:

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