Ten days after Barack Obama was elected president, his transition team released his second weekly address with no small amount of fanfare.
The reason: they were taking the weekly address, which presidents have done for decades on radio, and also taping it on video then uploading it to YouTube.
It was, they said, another sign that they would be more transparent than any White House before them.
“No previous president-elect or president has turned the radio address into a multi-media opportunity,” the White House release said. “This is just one of many ways that President-elect Obama will communicate directly with the American people and make the White House and the political process more transparent.”
However, I made the observation to a White House staffer at a holiday party last Christmas that videotaping the weekly address and putting it on YouTube was not, in fact, an example of transparency. It was creating more accessibility, I said, by making the address available to more people and a younger demographic more conversant with new media.
But transparency is all together different and includes allowing the press and the public to see the inner workings of how decisions get made and who makes them, which the video taped address did nothing to illuminate. The notion that a videotaped message was increasing transparency had the potential to actually decrease openness, since it was giving the impression or claim of greater accountability without actually delivering the goods. The Obama staffer said nothing but did not appear, to my eye, to agree with me.
A recently unearthed video makes the same point I was making more poignantly than I ever could have. In the video, which was first reported on by the right-wing Web site World Net Daily, Obama communications adviser Anita Dunn is shown speaking on Jan. 12, before the inauguration, about the Obama campaign’s communications strategy.
Dunn, who was named the president’s communications director in April, tells an audience of Dominican Republic government officials that the Obama campaign made regular use of canned videos during the presidential election. But Dunn makes no mention of transparency or openness.
“One of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters,” Dunn said. “We just put that out there and make them write what Plouffe had said, as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter.”
“So it was very much, we controlled it, as opposed to the press controlled it,” she said.
Dunn’s larger point (I’ve included a longer transcript of Dunn’s remarks on this below to allow for grasping the larger context of what she said) was that the campaign wanted to make the press write about the substance of what Obama and his surrogates were saying, rather than “why the campaign was saying it, what the tactic was.”
She said that they had Obama do live TV as often as possible to let him speak in more than sound bytes. All of that is fine and good, and it’s smart, and it does actually have merit, because it avoids dumbed down public discourse. But again, that is not transparency.
In the context of the transparency argument, the takeaway from the video of Dunn’s comments is that the Obama camp was, and by all signs continues to be, determined to control, as much as possible, how they are perceived and reported on (see their current attacks on Fox News). Control is not transparency, and some would argue the two are opposites, or at least that they are in certain cases. And Dunn’s point about why they used video releases contradicts the administration’s claim that they were using videotaped weekly addresses to increase openness.
Here is the entirety of Dunn’s quote, and the video is below:
“Whether it was a David Plouffe video or an Obama speech … a huge part of our press strategy was focused on making the media cover what Obama was actually saying, as opposed to, you know, why the campaign was saying it, what the tactic was. We had a huge premium both on message discipline – on people in the campaign not leaking to reporters, on people in the campaign not discussing our strategy – and also on making the press cover what we were saying.
So we, one of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters. We just put that out there and make them write what Plouffe had said, as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter. So it was very much, we controlled it, as opposed to the press controlled it.
And it did not always make us popular with the press, but we increasingly, by the general election, very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn’t absolutely control. Senator Obama himself did a lot of local television. We went to as much live television as possible, so it couldn’t be edited, when it came to him it was live, so that he could speak in longer than a 12-second sound byte. So that what the voters heard we determined as opposed to some editor in a TV station … We went around that filter.”
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times