On April 19, just before midnight and shortly after Obama had commented on the capture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, retweeted a typical digital communiqué, this one from Alex Morgan, a star on the 2012 Olympic gold-medal-winning women’s soccer team. “Watching the news and feeling patriotic,” Morgan tweeted to her nearly 1.2 million followers. “Gotta love pres Obama’s speeches.”
In the old days—not even 20 years ago—lawmakers sent printed letters to constituents using a congressional postage system called franking. In 1996, I reported that Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina was among the Senate’s top frankers, a taxpayer-funded perk that contradicted his regular rhetorical bashing of Big Government. Most lawmakers, however, sent franked letters only from time to time. Today, politicians’ constant online presence, maintained by armies of staffers and outside hired guns, surely costs Americans much more than the quaint system of franking ever did, and yet it’s accepted as business as usual in our digital lives.
Facebook even runs secretive seminars at which it trains lawmakers and their aides how to exploit social media. I tweeted a message to Adam Conner, Facebook’s 28-year-old public-policy manager in Washington who runs the seminars, to ask for an interview, but he didn’t respond. Instead, I received an email from a Facebook PR staffer named Brandon Lepow, who first sounded cooperative but ended up emailing his regrets. “Unfortunately we aren’t going to be able to accommodate your request for an interview,” Lepow wrote. “However, if you are looking for something to use for your story, feel free to attribute the following to a Facebook spokesperson: ‘Facebook is excited to be a major communication platform where members of Congress and other elected officials can engage with their constituents on important issues that matter in their district and state.’”
Feel free, indeed. Ironically, this kind of non-answer echoes the responses reporters routinely receive from lawmakers these days.
Digital technology has changed the interaction between Washington pols and reporters in other ways, too. The traditional phone and in-person interviews are often augmented, and at times replaced, by email exchanges. While convenient, these exchanges give lawmakers more opportunity to rehearse and rehash their responses to questions. Worse, the responses are often crafted by congressional flacks whose role as Internet intermediaries is easily concealed.
In a July 15, 2012, article, New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters claimed that it was becoming “the default position” for Washington correspondents to grant their sources pre-publication “quote approval” and to make changes if they wished. In a speech at the National Press Club the following week, James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief, announced that he had prohibited the practice among his reporters and called on other news organizations to follow suit. The Associated Press and the National Journal took similar stances, and The New York Times imposed new restrictions.
From the fiscal cliff to threats of government shutdowns, we are constantly reminded that American politics has become more ideologically hardline, less open to compromise. The marginalization of independent journalism is both a consequence of this partisan gridlock (the right has used the liberal-media bogeyman to inoculate itself against criticism for more than 40 years) and part of the reason that gridlock is able to endure. If an elected official only communicates with the public either directly, via social media, or through “friendly” press, his ideas and statements never get scrutinized, let alone challenged; there is no need to compromise because he is always able to claim to be doing “what the public wants.” So we end up with phony and absurd debates like the endless prattle over “death panels” in Obamacare, which has resurfaced most of the 37 times the House has voted to repeal the landmark health-insurance law, most recently in mid-May.
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I’ve tried to patch things up with Wilson and Clyburn. While covering the federal trial over South Carolina’s voter-ID law in August 2012, I interviewed the state Attorney General Alan Wilson, the congressman’s son, who had sued the Justice Department for blocking the law under the Voting Rights Act.