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WaPo‘s Chris Cillizza on Twittering the WH Briefings: ‘You Have to Recognize the Ridiculous in Order to Also See the Sublime’

hyperggggfx.pngWelcome to the Internet Presidency where Barack Obama gets to keep his Blackberry and journalists Twitter White House briefings. During the campaign, which among other things completely transformed how politicians will use the online world going forward, Obama talked a lot about how he intended to bring a level of transparency to this administration by making as much information as possible available to the public via the Web. His radio addresses, which are simultaneously posted on YouTube, are early evidence of this, as are many of the proposed changes on WhiteHouse.gov. However! Thus far (two weeks in) it looks as though it is those journalists covering the administration who are the ones truly forging ahead.

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Behold Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post who has been twittering Robert Gibbs‘ daily briefings at TheHyperFix since they began. “The old days of journalism where we simply put out the paper and assume people will find it and read it are over,” he tell us. No kidding. For the political junkies in the audience it’s a great peek behind the curtain into the very small, and previously very elite, White House press room. Also Cillizza, who demonstrates a near encyclopedic knowledge of who’s who in the room, where they sit, and their journalism background (also, from time to time, fashion choices), makes for a great tour guide. It’s a bit like a pool report but in 140 characters doses.

We caught up with Cillizza, who likens his twitter feed to a political version of Mystery Science 3000, to ask him what it’s like to be leading the 2.0 charge in the hallowed halls of the White House briefing room, whether Gibbs is actually controlling the Dow, and why he says there is no “right” way to cover the White House.


Were you the first person to Twitter a White House Briefing? And what was the reaction from those around you?

CC: I think but am not totally sure I was the first person in the mainstream media to Twitter the White House briefing from the room itself. I’m no Twitter historian, though, so I leave open the possibility I wasn’t. (Slate’s John Dickerson was doing Twitter before Twitter was cool.) As for how I did it, I actually just sat in the Washington Post‘s assigned seat — second row, third seat in — with my laptop and air card and wrote from there. It felt pretty natural….not a lot of gawking.

Why Twitter? What do you think Twitter adds to the coverage?

CC: I am a big believer in reaching people through a variety of mediums. I think the old days of journalism where we simply put out the paper and assume people will find it and read it are over. It’s why I have a blog, write for the paper, do TV, and Twitter. It’s all about reaching as many people as possible with our journalism. As for twittering the briefings, I do think it adds a contemporaneous commentary and, dare I say it, fun to the proceedings. I was always a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I view twittering the briefings as my own political mystery science theater. Some of the tweets are informative, others are (I hope) funny.

A number of people have remarked on your personal asides as not being appropriate for White House coverage, but they are very much in keeping with Twitter’s tone. Do you think it adds to the transparency, sense of participation?

CC: I did read those criticisms. To me, one of the most important things to always remember when covering politics is that you have to recognize the ridiculous in order to also see the sublime. While the White House beat is one of the most influential in the world, it also has its moments of high comedy — like on Tuesday when Robert Gibbs just kept insisting he wouldn’t look in his rear view mirror. Does the White House condone bad driving? My point is that there is no one “right” way to cover the White House; there are all sorts of different ways to do it. I choose to cover it via a blog and Twitter while other reporters at the Post cover it through the paper. Some readers prefer one, some the other. Great. As long as they are reading Washington Post journalism (in some form) I think we are doing what we should be doing.

How are people reacting and how many followers do you have?.

CC: When we decided to live twitter things like the press briefing and the Republican National Committee Chairman race, we decided to create a separate feed so people could opt into receiving A TON of tweets in the space of an hour. So, on “The Fix” feed, which I post to five or six times a day and is as much about my random observations and music I like as politics, we have 5,918 people following. On “The Hyper Fix” (not bad, eh?) feed, which is specifically for live twittering events like the daily briefing, we have 1,867 following. (We started Hyper Fix last week.)

What’s your impression of Gibbs? (Is he really controlling the Dow?!)

CC: I think he is feeling his way through what is a really difficult job. On Tuesday he had to face down a cavalcade of questions on the withdrawal of Tom Daschle and did so, generally, quite well. The key for Gibbs is that reporters know he has direct access to President Obama, a fact that I think enhances his stature among the White House press corps. As for whether he’s controlling the Dow, I will continue to monitor it with my day trading account at my fingertips.

Do you think Twittering the briefing is the online equivalent of going jacketless in the White House?

CC: I think Twittering the briefing is just another way to use technology to bring readers to places they have never been able to go before. In other words, it’s like wearing a tuxedo t-shirt in the press briefing room.

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