After the last presidential news conference, there was a chorus of complaints from viewers alleging a low quality of questioning. Now the public will have a chance to try its hand at questioning the White House.
The White House announced yesterday what it called a "nugget" of cyber-news: Beginning today, senior administration officials will begin a series of Web chats. These "online discussions," titled "Ask the White House," will allow visitors to the official Web site, www.whitehouse.gov, to quiz top Bush aides without the media serving as middleman.
Andrew H. Card Jr., President Bush's chief of staff, will handle the inaugural chat. Card over the past two years has declined but a few interviews from the press. Tonight, at 7 EDT, he will take questions, unfiltered.
A word of caution: Those who join the chat should not expect a gossipy session about the president's daughters, or candid remarks from Card about the dominance of Bush senior adviser Karl Rove. As one press corps wag noted yesterday morning when the discussions were announced, it will allow the White House to give the same message to a 12-year-old in the Midwest that it has long given the press corps: "When we have something to announce, we'll announce it."
Questions will be discarded if they include "inappropriate messages," said Jimmy Orr, the White House Internet media director. After that, Card gets to choose which of the questions he will answer. Orr does not know how many people will send questions -- it's done by filling out a Web form with name, location and question -- but he notes that the president gets between 10,000 and 20,000 e-mails a day (which are fielded by the White House correspondence office).
Orr said the White House has high hopes for its entry into interactivity -- mentioning the Web chats in the same breath as its Web site's blockbuster hit, "Barney Cam," which features a camera that follows the president's Scottish terrier, Barney. "In the online tours" -- another new feature -- "and Barney Cam and all the different video available, we see the power of multimedia."
Next up after Card, on Thursday, is Mark A. Forman, who runs the Office of Management and Budget's "e-government initiatives." Then, on Earth Day, April 22, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman will hold a discussion.
This is not the first time there will be interactivity on the White House Web site, though: Both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had online "virtual town halls," a former aide said.
Orr said the White House site averages 14 million hits per day, up from 1 million two years ago. It goes well above that on historic days, such as Sept. 11, 2001, March 19, 2003 (the date, in Washington, that the Iraq war started), and when the Barney Cam and online tours debuted.