Earlier in this new year, Paul Kiel at Muckraker, Talking Points Memo's investigative arm, took note of the fact that he had stopped receiving press releases from the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice. It sounded like retaliation. The new media press pioneers at TPM had done more than anyone in this country to focus political and news media attention at the partisan rot in Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department. While Kiel and company had been receiving e-mailed updates from DOJ for months, the sudden change in leadership at DOJ at the end of the summer saw them cut off. When they asked why, they were given the curious explanation that the department couldn't have everyone on their electronic mailing lists.
The House Judiciary Committee addressed the sudden electron shortage at the Justice Department to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and on Thursday, the Bush appointee was forced to discuss the subject on the record by Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson. Mukasey effectively said he had no idea what was happening:
I'm not aware with how the distribution of press releases is arrived at. I do know that all the press releases should be on our website. So they should be generally available.
Perhaps we should be happy that we have an AG who is not enough of a micro-manager to know what's going on with the e-mail lists in his department. But Bush administration-wide, this is a real problem. And the current policy seems to be "We only talk to bloggers we like."
At some level, the idea that there should be any distinction between online and dead-tree media outlets is anachronistic. Bloggers could easily be subject to the same certification requirements as AP, the National Review, or the Chicago Defender. But as it stand, government organs often don't really like to talk to people that they consider to be lowly bloggers, whether they operate as organized media ouetlets or not. Seriously, try calling the White House press office sometime as a representative of an organ with ".com" in your name, and see if you'll get a call back. More than two years since I started my life as a reporter, much of it online, I still haven't seen the White House '456' prefix pop up in my caller ID.
But the rules seem to be a little different if you're an influential conservative blogger. Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters got to invite a group of like-minded bloggers to a conference call about executive privilege with an unnamed White House official last summer. This is precisely the kind of subject-matter that TPM and other online organizations have been scrutinizing so closely.
I also was told once by a State Department public affairs officer that she wasn't really sure she should be talking to me. Why? Because I was writing for an online-only outlet, not an official press organization. A different shop which deals with the general public, as opposed to the media, deals with bloggers she said. But, because I was asking some pretty legitimate questions and willing to print actual statements from the department, she'd make an exception (and, I should note, I was never told this again in my many interactions with State Department press officers).
But, take another department still - the Department of Defense is regularly convening a Bloggers' Roundtable, most of them conservative, to get out their version of the story in Iraq to the online world.
And who can forget "Talon News," the mostly web-based outlet represented in White House daily press briefings by journalist/prostitute Jeff Gannon/James Guckert?
Clearly the Bush White House and administration aren't alone in not being sure about what to do with bloggers-as-media outlets. But the courtship of individual bloggers by White House staff when it's handy shows that there is a clear, structured stratetegic communications (aka 'propaganda') operation going on here: whoever we like, you'll get the same heads ups given to big media outlets, and if you don't tow our line, you're dead to us.
This probably won't change before the end of the 43rd American presidency. But I hope we can get some wiser approaches to dealing with bloggers from '09 onward. And who knows, maybe the next president will have to add a blogger plane to the press plane in their flotilla (or maybe we'll just take over the press plane). Whatever it is, you can't keep us barbarians at the gate forever.
Cross-posted from Veracifier.