Thursday, July 7, 2011

Digital divide: Obama's tweet and Gerald Ford's watch -- July 7, 2011 column


In December 1974, President Gerald R. Ford made news by becoming the first president to wear a digital wrist watch.

Writing about the digital watch, the great newspaper columnist Charles R. McDowell Jr. quoted a United Press International news story in its entirety:

“President Ford today wore a digital wrist watch. The watch, which shows the time in numerals, appeared on his left wrist when he chaired a meeting of his Domestic Council in the Cabinet Room. It was the first time they had seen the President wearing a watch without the big and little hands, some White House aides said.”

About this “strange little item,” McDowell wrote, “The significance of this story remains unclear to me after several readings and much deep thought. I suppose it should be taken at face value and with tolerance for the journalistic tradition that nothing is too trivial to report about the President of the United States.”

I was privileged later to work and be friends with Charley McDowell, who retired in 1998 and died last year. I came across the column in a booklet of some of his favorites. How I wish he were here for the news of Barack Obama’s big tweet.

President Obama made news Wednesday by becoming the first president to live tweet. Sitting on a tall stool in the East Room under the watchful gaze of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, Obama typed a question in 140 characters.

The Washington Post, New York Times and other organizations providing news and commentary on platforms not even dreamt of in 1974 covered the milestone. A picture on the front page of The Wall Street Journal showed Obama next to a screen grab of a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner.

I’m not saying the first presidential tweet or the first Twitter Town Hall from the White House is trivial, but both seem puny compared with Franklin D. Roosevelt's appearance on TV in 1939, Jimmy Carter's installation of the first computer in the West Wing in 1978, or even George H.W. Bush's first presidential email in 1992.

Obama is no stranger to technology. He’s the first president to use a BlackBerry and a frequent online guest.

In April, he did a Facebook Town Hall with Mark Zuckerberg. In January, he answered video questions submitted by YouTube users in a town hall-style event sponsored by Google. More than 40,000 video questions were submitted.

Last October, he took questions from young people via Twitter in a live town hall sponsored by MTV, BET and CMT. In 2009, he did an online town hall with questions from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter users.

For his first tweet, Obama typed, “In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep – bo.”

Alas, the Twitter Town Hall went downhill from there. It proved that real-life town halls have a lot more going for them than the virtual variety. With a real-life town hall, there’s a chance, slim though it may be, for an unscripted moment between president and citizen.

In this case, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and an amiable fellow, read the tweets to Obama. Dorsey made a point of saying that neither he nor Obama knew what the questions would be, as if that added drama. The questions – chosen by “curators” around the country – were safe and surprise-free.

The one near-surprise came when Dorsey said there was a question from “someone you may know.” Speaker Boehner’s tweet: “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?”

Obama patiently explained in his professorial style that Boehner is a Republican, so the question was “slightly skewed.”

If this was boring video, it was brilliant as a political organizing tool. The White House reported that by noon on the day of the event, more than 60,000 tweets had been sent to the hashtag #AskObama. Just think of all those fans, friends and followers.

In his Twitter debut, the president didn’t try to respond in 140-character tweets. He stuck to lengthy verbal responses. And so, another milestone awaits.

Obama still can become the first president to tweet a response. It’s no digital wrist watch. But if he does, you know it’ll make news.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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