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After Obama, Gibbs Bats Cleanup in Virtual Press Conference

06/16/2010 11:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just after President Obama's national BP address on Tuesday night, press secretary Robert Gibbs took a few extra questions. But they weren't from the White House press corps.

Gibbs cracked open the door of the press room to any citizen with an Internet connection, and on short notice, about 14,000 people submitted or voted on questions about the oil spill. Over 7,200 questions were submitted, and participation was deep, with an average 13 votes cast per person.  Several questions, read aloud by White House new media director Macon Phillips, focused on regulatory requirements for emergency shut off switches, media access to the spill zone, techniques for cleaning up the spill, and international collaboration in assisting the clean-up effort.

At one point, the citizen press conference cut to a video question from a young man named Jon Hocevar, standing on a dock in Grande Isle, Louisiana, who asked whether Obama would "end our reliance on fossil fuels and ... shift to a clean and renewal energy future."  The pointed query sounded more like activism than journalism, and it was -- Hocevar directs Greenpeace's "Oceans Campaign." On Tuesday, the environmental group posted Hocevar's question on YouTube under the headline "Greenpeace question for President Obama." 

The White House obviously took lots of heat for both its policy stance and press message on BP. Gibbs' unusual foray online, dubbed "Open for Questions," seemed partly a calibration to show that the public face of the administration is not only talking to the usual suspects from the podium, but also listening to a wider group of voices. (The White House has used the "Open for Questions" platform for cabinet secretaries and The President before, and Gibbs dabbled with the platform during the transition, though he ducked the most highly voted question at the time, about torture.)  Here at The Nation, I had suggested the White House open up its press access as part of its public communication about this crisis:

Obama is rightly annoyed by the made-for-TV quality of oil spill criticism—the main character needs to show more anger in this scene—but instead of complaining on TV about TV, he should try changing the channel. He could hold more press conferences, and invite not only White House reporters but also environmental experts for a deeper exchange on the crisis. (Think less emotion, more acoustic switches.) To engage people in the Gulf region, he could dust off some of the technology from the old days and convene an unfiltered, online town hall for the most popular questions from regular people and citizen media on the ground. In other words, the solution to the White House's press woes is pretty obvious: Stop complaining about the media you have, and start engaging the media you want. Of course, that assumes Obama's stated desire for a deeper, more substantive conversation is genuine. He just has to prove it.

Compared to the devastation in the Gulf, of course, these questions of public engagement feel quite minor. But the White House deserves some credit for making staff available to engage citizens, experts and activists in a 25-minute conversation that was a bit more open and thorough than much of the conventional national discussion of this environmental tragedy.

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this first appeared. The White House's "Open for Questions" video is available on YouTube.