The way-too-cute, pre-arranged Huffington Post moment in Tuesday’s Presidential press conference was actually a good idea, poorly executed. President Obama answering a question from an Iranian citizen is an inspired notion – but one that would have been more appropriate as on online chat at Whitehouse.gov than a planted question in a press conference.
But make no mistake: President Obama’s use of digital media platforms has not only been effective, it is redefining Presidential communications.
Looking back through history, however, a pattern becomes clear: The contributions made by the pioneer of each new medium are largely forgotten when his successor – with the benefit of further advancements in technology and broader adoption of the new medium – masters it.
Exhibit A is radio. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the first President to be heard on radio. His successor, Herbert Hoover, was the real radio pioneer. Hoover had a radio transmitter in his home and began addressing the American people on radio in 1929 as President-elect. Hoover broadcast a wide range of events on radio, but could not overcome two problems: He was a shouter who didn’t make for an easy listen; and there was no national network to amass an audience to hear him. FDR came along, mastered the “microphone technique” as it was known, and used the new NBC radio network – 37 markets strong – to air the first of his 30 radio fireside chats in 1933. FDR made his Presidential radio debut 10 years after Coolidge and on the heels of a radio-happy Hoover. But his skill at using the medium and larger available audience gave him the permanent mantle of Radio President.
JFK gets credit as the Television President, largely because of his winning performance in the 1960 debates with Richard Nixon, the first of which was watched by an audience of 70 million. Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949 was the first televised, but clearly Dwight Eisenhower was the President who ushered America into the television era. He hired actor Robert Montgomery as a media advisor to improve his effectiveness on television. He modernized FDR’s fireside chat into a candlelit South Lawn holiday television production. And in 1955 Eisenhower became the first president to conduct a televised press conference. He provided so much TV footage the networks expanded their evening newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes. To cap it off, President Eisenhower was honored with an Emmy Award in 1956 for his contributions to television news. Ike got the trophy, but JFK got remembered as the Television President.
Media history is repeating itself. President Obama is getting well-deserved credit for extending the use and reach of new media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. But amnesia has set in regarding the important contributions of his predecessor. You wouldn’t know from the coverage of President Obama’s new media efforts that the Bush White House blazed some digital trails of its own:
- In 2001, Whitehouse.gov offered live streaming coverage of all events – which at the time was no small accomplishment. In April, many news outlets picked up a White House press release inaccurately claiming this year’s Easter Egg Roll was the first ever streamed live. They were off by seven years.
- When the 9/11 attacks resulted in the cancellation of White House holiday tours in 2001, “Barney-Cam,” in which the First Dog led a clever online video tour of the holiday decorations, was an instant Internet hit that would become a popular White House tradition.
- ”Ask the White House,” became the first-ever live web chat with White House and cabinet officials when it debuted on whitehouse.gov in 2003.
- The White House launched a robust menu of RSS newsfeeds in 2005, some of which outside citizens repurposed on social platforms, including the first Twitter feed of White House information.
- Also in 2005, the White House Internet forged an agreement with iTunes to host a page for downloading Presidential speeches, the radio address, daily press briefings and State of the Union. Yet President Obama was given credit this year as the first President to turn the weekly address into a multimedia affair.
- President Bush’s 2007 Roosevelt Room meeting with military bloggers was another first and in 2008, aboard Air Force One on his way back from the Middle East, Bush made history as the first Presidential blogger, contributing an entry to the original White House staff blog, “Trip Notes From the Middle East.”
- Bush’s interview in 2008 with Mike Allen for Politco.com and Yahoo was the first straight-to-Internet Presidential interview.
Each President uses the available technology. For President Bush, it wasn’t Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which were not legitimized for mass audiences for much of his administration and were blocked at the White House out of concerns related to security and adherence with the Presidential Records Act.
The Internet was President Bush’s new medium, effectively taking the limited version of whitehouse.gov launched by President Clinton in 1995 and using it in new and effective ways as the technology improved. Nevertheless, if history is any guide, President Obama will be remembered as our first Internet President.