NPR at White House’s service in name of social media “conversation” on Obama speech


To great fanfare, NPR, Foreign Policy and The White House simultaneously announced this morning a joint event to be held tomorrow immediately following President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on US policy in the Arab world.

The event, billed as a Twitter “conversation” will be facilitated by NPR’s social media guru Andy Carvin along with Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch and will feature Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes fielding questions regarding Obama’s speech.


Rhodes, a key Obama foreign policy speech writer, more than likely would have had a major role in writing tomorrow’s speech. No critics of Obama administration policy in the Arab world have been invited to sit at the same table as Rhodes to provide any of NPR’s famous “balance.”

Even worse, this event is being done at the behest of the White House itself, as Carvin explained in his announcement:

The White House contacted Marc and me several days ago, asking if we would be interested in conducting a Twitter chat related to the speech. We agreed on the condition that the two of us would run the chat and any subsequent interviews ourselves, including choosing the questions and topics to be addressed in it.

The “chat” is being heavily promoted by government agencies. Not only was it blogged by the White House, but also tweeted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson Alec J Ross, and the State Department among others.

Of course all this is being done in the name of “conversation” and participation as Carvin explains:

Rather than come up with all the questions ourselves, we’d like to invite you to help us craft the questions. If you’re on Twitter and want to submit a question, please post a tweet with your question and include the hashtag #MEspeech in the tweet. You can pose your question before or during the speech. We won’t be able to get to every question, of course, so we encourage everyone to follow the #MEspeech hashtag and join the broader conversation about the speech on Twitter.

Yet despite the assurances that two establishment figures would “choose” (i.e. screen) the questions, the fallacy here is that through such a Twitter “conversation” there can be meaningful “engagement” with government officials or a real opportunity to challenge them on their standard boilerplate answers on matters of life and death to millions of people.

When challenged on this via Twitter, Carvin responded,


But when thousands of questions are coming in and the task of screening them is left in “expert” hands, these social media events tend toward the superficial. Rather like President Obama’s recent, heavily stage-managed Facebook “Town Hall,” they become little more than publicity stunts offering a simulacrum of participation while ensuring that millions of eyeballs are diverted away from independent and dissenting analysis and directed toward a strictly official viewpoint.

It’s no wonder The White House asked, and it must have been delighted that NPR and Foreign Policy jumped to attention and agreed to a panel on a major foreign policy speech with precisely one member: the speechwriter.

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I think they made great choices of people who would be considered impartial and knowledgeable on the topic.

Who would you rather have handle this? From what i can gather from your post you would want some mix of Fox News and Al jezeraa running this twitter conversation.

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Yeah you are being harsh. Or at least misdirected. There are so many things the Obama admin is doing that are REALLY bad (Manning, stomping on whistleblowers, allowing Banksters to be fee, continuing the war in Afganistan & Iraq, allowing further monopolization of commmunications/media, Riaa/mpaa lawyers running Justice dept, raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, continuing bush admin policies on illegal rendition, gitmo, and more

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I'm more than skeptical of any statements by the White House or their people, whatever is said is guaranteed to be at best only part of the truth. But I also appreciate an attempt to communicate a little more widely and maybe address something that wouldn't normally come up.
As to whether the moderation is as independent, critical, expert, or whatever enough, I think it will be best just to wait and see. Something about dismissing the conversation before it happens seems a little rushed to me. I know in this period of constant news cycles it is tempting to provide commentary before something even occurs, I certainly jump to conclusions before seeing something out, but I think we all need to make an attempt to wait to put things down until they have failed instead of shutting them down before they can make a start.
Twitter: @zigguratmonk

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Is it harsh to expect NPR not to be the mouthpiece of the Obama administration? Have we become become so acclimated to so-called news outlets marginalizing independent voices and toeing the official line that expecting something different is "harsh" or "misdirected"? Yes, the Obama administration has much to account for in terms of lives destroyed or devastated, but the issues at stake here are no less worthy of an open debate. Isn't it a "rush to judgment" to suppose, rather, that a worthwhile discussion can be had when critical voices are missing?

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.