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Obama to Field Questions Posted by YouTube Users

By Brian Stelter, The New York Times

Feb 3, 2010

On Monday, President Obama is scheduled to sit down in the library of the White House residence for his first interview since his State of the Union address.

The interviewer? The United States of YouTube.

In a first-of-its-kind group interview, Mr. Obama will read and watch questions submitted by YouTube users and answer them in a live Webcast. “It’s a way to give people access to the president that feels more participatory,” said Macon Phillips, the Obama administration’s director of new media.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, will allow people both to submit questions and to vote for their favorite ones, “so we get a stronger signal about what the crowd is interested in,” said Steve Grove, the head of news and politics at YouTube and a former reporter for The Boston Globe.

The Webcast is also an example of the White House trying to bypass the traditional media, coming at a time when Mr. Obama is looking to regain popular support after a drop in the polls and the loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts that cost Democrats their supermajority.

Sessions like Monday’s Webcast “are the 21st-century equivalent of Roosevelt’s fireside chats,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference and blog about politics and technology.

Kevin Sullivan, a White House communications director in the Bush administration, said answering questions from citizens is a “smart supplement” to traditional interviews, but added, “It doesn’t replace taking questions from professional journalists.”

The president has not held a formal news conference at the White House for six months.

Every modern presidential administration strives to talk directly to the public and avoid what many call, not always kindly, the “filter” of the media. In his third month in office, President Bill Clinton said to journalists: “You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me by giving me to the American people directly.”

Presidents can now bypass even a talk show host, thanks to the Internet. The Obama administration maintains an active YouTube channel, for instance, with more than 650 videos uploaded in its first year. Many are excerpts from presidential events; but others are more offbeat, like last week’s clip titled “The Making of Presidential Football Helmet.”

“You can find more success getting information to where the American people are as opposed to forcing them to come to where you are in order to get it,” said Bill Burton, a deputy White House press secretary. “Given that less and less folks get their information through the traditional news media, this is a unique opportunity for a participatory exchange that is directly with the American people.”

Mr. Obama has answered online questions before, during a town-hall-style Webcast last year. But in that case, the most popular questions were screened and sorted by White House staff members. This time, the White House is providing only the cameras; YouTube is sorting the questions, through an in-house tool called Google Moderator.

The administration also holds regular question-and-answer Webcasts with policy officials on After the State of the Union address last Wednesday, Mr. Phillips and three officials stayed online until 11:15 p.m. fielding questions from Web users.

White House aides say the videos and Webcasts are a powerful “force multiplier” for the administration’s persuasion efforts, even though the audience for a typical YouTube video is in the thousands, rather than the millions that a presidential event draws on television. The cumulative effect, they say, is critically important.

Monday’s Webcast stemmed from discussions between the White House and YouTube about a collaboration around the time of the State of the Union. There is no direct financial gain for YouTube, since the Webcast will not carry any advertising. But it will be a showcase for YouTube’s push into live, streaming video. (Google has based a new team of six engineers in Washington to “improve products to help connect citizens to government directly,” said Ginny Hunt, a public sector product manager for the company.)

Mr. Grove will act as the intermediary on Monday afternoon, narrowing the thousands of submitted questions (11,700 as of Sunday evening) down to a list of about 100 of the most popular ones, some written and some in video form, and choosing from them as the half-hour conversation progresses.

Mr. Grove said he intended to ask some questions that “might not usually make it to a president.”

Memorably, Mr. Obama said a question about whether the legalization of marijuana would stimulate the economy was among the most popular questions in advance of his online meeting last year.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Mr. Obama said at the event, chuckling before explaining that because “this was a fairly popular question, we want to make sure that it was answered.” (He answered no.)

Critics may scoff at Monday’s Webcast, which is scheduled to begin at 1:45 p.m. Eastern, as a forum for soft-ball questions. But Mr. Grove disagreed, pointing to the submissions themselves — about jobs, government reform, education, and myriad other topics — as proof.

“I don’t think our users are giving the president any more of a break than the White House press corps,” he said.

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