Anchors Oblige Public's Craving for Tweets

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

The sun was not yet up when David Gregory checked in with his followers:

"646 am. Just got to NBC. Almost showtime. Betsy just sent me Frank Rich piece. Actually read during night. Should we include?"

Less than two hours later, the "Meet the Press" host offered an update: "Rehearsal done. Guests should arrive anytime now. This is a good time for me to go thru my q's one last time. Maybe a bagel b4 air."

Gregory was providing real-time chatter on Twitter, the social networking site built around terse messages, which is becoming something of a hangout for high-profile anchors.

"Here's a chance through Twitter, all these social networks, to break the glass in front of the tube," says "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran. "It gives you a chance to offer more about your life as a reporter, a person living in Washington." Being on Twitter counters "the whole notion that newscasters speak from Olympus," and yet "it leaves you open to some rich contempt and mockery. You don't want to overshare."

Twitter, which began in 2006, has 6 million users, a fivefold increase since last summer. The 140-character limit on each message initially seems silly, but forces a witty sort of brevity that seems well matched to today's sound-bite culture. While dwarfed by the likes of Facebook, which has become so mainstream it can hardly be viewed as edgy, the bare-bones Twitter has been generating considerable buzz lately.

In an age when people expect behind-the-scenes dish, the site enables television types to explain what they're doing -- and flatter their fans by soliciting their opinions.

Moran did that two weeks ago, providing a steady flow of tweets, as they're called, on the day that he interviewed President Obama. He asked his followers what questions he should pose to the president -- and some of the suggestions, he says, were pretty good.

"Focus on the economy," one person wrote. "Don't wander off like clowns at the news conference, talking about Iran, Afghanistan."

Moran's updates had a you-are-there quality:

7:18 a.m.: "Arrived at Andrews. Security smooth and courteous. Wondering if $1.5 trillion is enough to save the banks."

8:46 a.m.: "On board Air Force One. Pancakes, bacon and eggs on the menu. Twix and snickers for snacks."

1:47 p.m.: "Waiting for the big interview. Cooking up my first question. Gotta go with Wall Street's reaction to the banks plan, no?"

Moran proceeded to scoop himself -- and ABC -- with some of the president's remarks. "Just finished interview," he wrote at 3:06. "I asked, 'Wall Street really doesn't like your plan for banks.' 'Wall Street wants an easy answer, there isn't one.' " Two minutes later: "On why not nationalize banks, O: too many, too expensive, not our culture."

With that kind of pipeline, who needs television?

Most major television news programs and anchors have a Twitter page, but most are impersonal listings and links to promote each show. A relative few offer a steady stream of personal observations.

Gregory says he sometimes gets responses within 10 seconds -- and that the information can be useful in questioning guests. "People generally want to be heard," says Gregory, who has posted pictures from his studio for his 46,000 followers. "They don't want to be talked at. They don't want to deal with closed-off media institutions.

"I want to find people where they are. . . . This is 'Knock knock, let's talk about the news, and by the way, hope you'll check me out on Sunday morning.' "

CNN anchor Rick Sanchez has built his 3 p.m. program around Twitter, as well as Facebook and MySpace, since the show's launch last fall. Sanchez, who has 56,000 followers, reads some tweets on the air and producers run excerpts at the bottom of the screen.

"When I first started doing this, I thought, 'This is crazy. What the hell does this have to do with news?' I thought Twitter was a fad my teenage sons are going through," he says.

During Hurricane Gustav, Sanchez recalls, someone tweeted that a Mississippi highway was backed up for miles. Sanchez reported the information after a producer confirmed it.

Sanchez makes some entries during the program, posting such messages as "alright, what do i lead my show with tomorrow, what's the best video out there. best talker?" And: "getting lots of word that rush limbaugh is going after me on his show, what's he saying? anybody know?"

Twitter is gradually becoming a factor in news events. When that US Airways jet made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January, Twitter users were providing updates before the New York Times published an online story. Janis Krums, a passenger on a nearby ferry, posted a Twitter photo of the plane in the water that was quickly picked up by major news organizations.

Fox News correspondent Julie Banderas, who was twittering at home when a plane crashed outside Buffalo, asked whether there were any eyewitnesses she could contact. Keith Burtis, who saw the crash, responded to Banderas's posting. She wound up doing a phone interview with Burtis, who later appeared on Fox.

But the online chatter isn't all about journalism. "With my wife and oldest son skiing, I'm home with my twins watching Willy Wonka. Solid," Gregory reported. And where else could you glean this information about MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: "Spending the weekend in a bikini, riding a crayfish, listening to Boozoo Chavis!"

The Twitter world may be self-involved and incestuous, but its adherents are true believers. "The people we're trying to attract," Sanchez says, "love the Internet and pretty much live there."

Hitching a Ride

Kathleen Parker was "a little mystified" when the White House invited her to accompany President Obama on an Air Force One flight to Chicago. The right-leaning columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group recently called his brief tenure "a study in amateurism."

Yet there she was, interviewing Obama along with such liberal columnists as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Bob Herbert of the New York Times and The Post's E.J. Dionne. The result was an upbeat column and a posting on the Daily Beast in which Parker said she was struck by Michelle Obama's "warmth," her "adorable" children and her husband's "immense calm."

Parker says in an interview that Obama came across as "an extremely thoughtful, deliberate person," but she is not about to change her views. "I don't think any of us are likely to be seduced by an airplane ride and a book of Air Force One matches," she says. "I also doubt the president had any such illusions when he invited us."

During the campaign, Parker received 12,000 hostile e-mails after sharply criticizing Sarah Palin on National Review Online. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin called Parker's latest column an "obsequious, embarrassing paean to Barack Obama."

Parker expected the counterattack: "Conservatives are saying, 'Aha, you sucked up, you bashed Palin so you could ride on Air Force One.' I don't care if I ride on Air Force One. Big deal." What was useful, says Parker, is getting "a better sense of how he thinks and approaches issues."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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