White House gets into chat

Net: A Web dialogue is the Bush administration's latest step in finding alternate means of communicating its message.

April 24, 2003|By Bob Kemper | Bob Kemper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, which has developed an array of communications strategies that bypass the traditional White House press corps, has a new Internet feature that allows anyone with a computer and a modem to put a question directly to an administration official.

Inaugurated last week, "Ask the White House" enables the administration to deliver its message directly to the people, free of media filtering or analysis. Still, based on the first two online sessions, e-mail questioners are likely to get the same prepackaged answers as any reporter asking a question at a White House briefing.

What is the best way to create jobs? a writer named George asked this week.

"We need the biggest tax cuts possible!!!!" responded Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the new Internet feature is not so much a means of getting out Bush's message as it is allowing Americans their say.

"It's important that the voices of the American people are heard, and the president works hard to listen to them through a variety of means," Fleischer said. "This is one more means."

The Internet feature is the latest initiative of a White House communications team whose ability to stay on message and bypass traditional media have awed public relations experts.

The Bush White House is notoriously tight-lipped and has built its communications strategy on "message discipline" - the ability to give the same answer over and over again, whatever the question.

Bush seldom holds news conferences, and when he does reporters are usually told only an hour beforehand, giving the president an advantage. The White House limits which reporters will be allowed to ask questions at those events.

The administration also has turned to niche publications to reach specific audiences.

One of the biggest interviews Bush did was not with Time or Newsweek but with Runner's World. The editors described Bush, an avid runner, this way: "His hair is plastered to his chest with sweat, he's gasping for air, and he's spitting and belching the way anyone might in an all-out race."

Last December, Bush could be seen peeking out of the window of his pickup truck on the cover of a glossy, upscale publication called Cowboys & Indians.

Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University in Washington, said the Bush strategy helps ensure that the administration's message is delivered just as they wish, without media analysis, while helping to humanize Bush for niche audiences that might not follow the news.

"They don't want their message filtered by reporters. They want to control the message," Steinhorn said. "He might not be the greatest communicator in history, but certainly his press and political operation is highly sophisticated."

Don't go to the "Ask the White House" site (www.whitehouse. gov/ask), looking to chat with President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. The guests of this feature are limited to the White House staff.

The chances are slim that your question will be answered. Jimmy Orr, the White House Internet media director, said thousands of e-mails are received, including a fair amount of junk e-mail. It's Orr's job to trim out the spam and "inappropriate messages" before passing them on to the guest.

Orr said he doesn't cut out questions that take issue with the administration's position or criticize the president.

"This is just another way to encourage discourse with the public," he said.

The session's host gets to decide which questions he or she will answer in a 30-minute real-time response. Card hosted the debut session April 16. Mark Forman, the administrator of Bush's e-government initiative, was the host April 17. Christie Todd Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presided Tuesday, which was Earth Day.

"Ask the White House" might grow in popularity, but for now it is running behind one of the top features of the White House Web site: Barney Cam, a "tour" of the White House from the perspective of Barney, one of two Bush family dogs.

Bob Kemper writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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