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.