Who gets (and controls) the “first crack”?

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs just tweeted about a new initiative to communicate with voters without a press filter, by inviting Twitter users to ask him their own question and jump ahead of the Associated Press’s correspondent who traditionally goes first at each White House press briefing:

Something new: You take first crack. Use #1q in a q & I’ll answer 1 on vid before today’s briefing. What do you want to know?

Gibbs doesn’t make it clear if he plans to post one of these videos each day. Even if that’s the case, this is would not be drastic development—Gibbs and other senior White House staffers have frequently answered questions by video posed by average citizens using social media. And that’s great, for all the obvious reasons.

But there’s a certain symbolism here: this time, non-reporters are being invited to take the “first crack” ahead of the daily briefing, the admittedly-problematic opportunity to question the administration on the record which is of totemic importance to White House correspondents.

Getting too bent out of shape out this would be self-important turf protection. But with each new initiative that opens a new channel between the public and their president, it’s worthwhile to at least keep in mind how it opens new abilities for the president to issue his message without risk of challenge.

Gibbs and his staff will choose the question they are answering from a buffet of those offered up by hashtag, and can pick to match their preferred message of the day. They will have time to script their response. And the questioner will have no opportunity for follow-up.

And while there is of course a difference between a question before a briefing and the first question at a briefing, the Gibbs tweet seems to set up this P.R. exercise as part of the briefing process.

It’s not a bad thing. But it’s definitely not the same thing.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.