When the White House hates your tweet

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

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President Barack Obama uses a laptop computer to send a tweet during a Twitter Town Hall in the East Room of the …

For the Obama White House, tweets from reporters are a kind of early warning system. It’s up to Jessica Allen, 24, to sound the alarm.

Allen, whose official title is “media monitor,” tracks journalists’ tweets and flags them in mass emails that land in the in-boxes of more than 80 Obama aides, including chief of staff Denis McDonough, White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, press secretary Jay Carney and senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

The result? Reporters who regularly cover Obama have become familiar with seemingly out-of-the-blue emails or telephone calls from officials taking issue with their tweets — often thoughtfully and constructively, sometimes with obscenity-laced yelps of outrage.

Longtime CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller estimates that he’s sent out some 77,000 tweets over the past five years and has received just a few “rockets from Carney.”

“'Rockets’ means a few minutes after I tweet something, I’ll get an email from him” with a complaint, Knoller said. “That’s his job, and I’m happy to hear what he has to say. I don’t take offense at it.”

“Sometimes he points out something where I could have been more clear, and I’ll go back and clarify it and attribute it to him. Sometimes he makes a legitimate point. Sometimes I disagree and I stand my ground,” Knoller told Yahoo News.

What kind of tweet gets the White House’s attention? In the past year, I’ve drawn responses for a sarcastic tweet about a comparison between Obama and JFK,

a pair of tweets expressing concern about the evolution of U.S. policy in Ukraine,

as well as a Twitter exchange that a White House official misread as saying that Mitt Romney was right to declare Russia America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, and a tweet wondering whether Vice President Joe Biden might make an unannounced stop in Afghanistan during a trip to Asia.

Similarly active tweeters in the White House press corps said that roughly tracked with their experience. None knew about Allen’s role in the process.

On Monday, during Biden’s speech on economic issues, Allen sent at least six emails to her list, each with up to three tweets, chiefly observations from reporters about the remarks, one official told Yahoo News.

Including messages about breaking news stories, White House officials say, her daily total runs easily into the hundreds of emails, and many more when the president’s schedule includes a high-profile speech or a press conference.

While White House communications staff track her alerts closely, other officials have been known to route her messages into email folders and check them just a couple of times a day, one Obama aide said.

When Obama faces the media, it’s not uncommon for Allen to send out 10-12 emails, each rounding up five to six tweets just about the president’s opening statement. She will follow up with messages including notable tweets about each question asked and each response.

That may seem like a lot of work to counter reporters’ stray thoughts on Twitter, where individual reporters can’t possibly match the White House’s 4.78 million followers.

But it isn’t some scary “Big Brother”-style surveillance of channels designed to be private: Virtually no political reporters treat Twitter as anything but a public space. They use Twitter to link to their work, ask questions, offer insights, analysis or speculation, engage politicians and their aides, and interact with sources and readers. Media outlets typically consider reporters’ activities on Twitter to be an extension of their workand are thrilled when reporters have impact there as well as on the Web, page or air. And Allen doesn’t flag personal remarks on Twitter as worth noting. “That would be a chronic waste of time,” one former administration official observed.

Instead, she watches the Twitter feeds of influential reporters for comments the White House might view as inaccurate, incomplete or unfair, as well as clues for what they are reporting and how it might portray the president or the administration.

Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed’s legal editor, got a telephone call from Carney earlier this year to clear up a misunderstanding about the president’s position on a possible executive order to ban workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.

Geidner had read the transcript of Carney’s briefing and tweeted something based on one of the press secretary’s answers. Carney tweeted a clarification — and phoned not long afterward with a “that’s not what I meant” message, Geidner told Yahoo News.

“There have been a limited number of instances that something I have tweeted has prompted a call from anybody in the White House, let alone a call from Jay,” Geidner, whose coverage of LGBT issues is highly regarded, said with a laugh.

“I would definitely say that it was a sign that it (Twitter) does matter to them — that they treat it the same way that they would treat a published report, which is probably smart,” he added. “They pushed back the way they would have if I had done a story.”

Interestingly, the White House doesn’t often respond to reporter tweets on Twitter, preferring instead to pick up the phone or send an off-the-record email — private, one-on-one communications.

Democratic officials said the White House’s informal guidelines call for staffers to jump in on Twitter itself in three circumstances: 1) If a Republican official is involved in the exchange, 2) if the White House wants to amplify a point it considers beneficial and 3) if it sees a confrontation with a reporter as politically useful and wants to escalate it.

“When you see, say, Pfeiffer engaging on Twitter, those are the times that he does want it escalated,” one Democratic operative told Yahoo News. “It’s a medium that’s designed for argument.”

Pfeiffer himself has repeatedly discussed Twitter’s importance to political communicators, notably calling it the place where “where the elite political debate is shaped.”

In an interview with Politico in March, Pfeiffer described how television and Twitter responded to Obama’s woeful performance in his first debate against Romney.

"And if you were watching the TV you were thinking, 'This is not great, but it's not disastrous,'” Pfeiffer said. “If you're watching the Twitter feed, you're seeing Andrew Sullivan and others threatening to commit ritual suicide over the president's performance and it's starting to spiral. And then you know how tough the folks in the spin room are going to have it that night."

While Allen’s Twitter monitoring is a relatively new phenomenon — the social media network rose to prominence at the same time as Obama did — her job has roots in a longstanding role in political communications.

Politicians, candidates and campaigns relied for decades on “clips” — initially, literal newspaper clippings compiled to assess the content and tone of coverage. That tedious and time-consuming job fell to clip services, which charged politicians a fortune to put together packets thick enough to pass for the white pages of a midsized American city.

A former John Kerry campaign aide recalls one firm that wanted $30,000 per quarter to compile clips for the candidate. But there were few other options — until the 2003-2004 cycle.

“That was the first cycle where newspapers had enough of a Web presence that you could print stories overnight and for the most part not be surprised by what was in the papers the next day,” said one Democrat. “We could pay a 22-year-old to stay up all night long, give them a quarter of the money and get a better product.”

(One early Kerry campaign clips aide: Jon Favreau, who eventually rose to be Obama’s chief speechwriter. “As tiring as it sometimes was, I actually enjoyed my time as the clips dude,” he told Yahoo News. “In addition to compiling and sending the clips, most people who do this job also read all the clips, which makes you one of the most informed staffers on a campaign at the start of each day. If you can get yourself past the deadening cynicism that comes with the media’s take on just about everything … you learn a lot of interesting things about the world!”)

In addition to printing clips, campaign interns watched nightly network newscasts and emailed more senior aides with summaries of what was said.

Over time, campaigns were able to turn to services like ShadowTV or TVEyes or Critical Mention that served as a kind of DVR “for all of television,” one Democrat said. As those services added the ability to search for keywords, campaigns could skip watching and would simply search for “John Kerry” or “Barack Obama.” Other “media monitors” listened to important radio programs.

Every official or operative Yahoo News spoke to emphasized that the media monitoring job, whether of news stories or of Twitter comments, is a high-stress, high-stakes, high-profile gig. One said it teaches “smart, motivated young people not just what is breaking news, or newsworthy, but what a campaign might begin to address” in press coverage.

“Her job requires someone with good judgment and a formidable work ethic. Jessica succeeds because she’s got both,” deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “Her emails, which start early in the morning, continue through the day and into the evening, give White House decision-makers real-time insight into world events and how they are being covered by the media. This White House loves its coffee, but with apologies to Dunkin' Donuts, this place runs on Jessica Allen’s emails.”

Years ago, young aides with similar job descriptions might have started work at 2 a.m., clipping and compiling national news coverage. As newspapers put more and more material online, that slid to 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. In the current news cycle, media outlets tend to like to publish breaking news during the day, not overnight, with the exception of investigative pieces, several officials said.

How did a youthful native of Canton, Ill., become a vital part of the White House communications staff?

Allen, who generally sends her first email of the day at 7 a.m., graduated from Northwestern University with a BA in political science (international affairs). Her honors thesis was entitled “Women's Substantive Political Representation in Uganda,” according to her LinkedIn profile.

As a senior, she worked as press intern for Obama’s re-election campaign, rising to the post of media monitor before going on to work for his 2013 inauguration committee and then joining the administration. Her predecessor in the media monitor job, Peter Velz, made $42,000 annually, according to a White House report to Congress.

And now she sends hundreds of emails per day from her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to some of the most powerful people in politics, who rely on her news judgment. She doesn’t just do Twitter — she’s also responsible for sending around prominent stories from major news outlets.

Upon being told who gets Allen’s emails, Knoller laughed and immediately saw an opportunity: “Wow, what better reason to write something they’re not gonna like? What a great way to get your writing in front of them!”

“I should do that more often,” he joked.

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