Helen Thomas calls Obama administration out on social media smokescreen

Chip Reid and Helen Thomas gave White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs a four-minute chunk of grief over trying to “control the press” in a way Thomas said was worse than even Richard Nixon.

Thomas, who has been covering White House press briefings I think since Taft was in office, has had a bit of internet fame due to her part in Stephen Colbert’s epicly awesome GWB send-up during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006. If you recall, Thomas chased a terrified Colbert around in his fantasy of being the White House Press Secretary, badgering Colbert about the reasons behind invading Iraq.

Thomas proved that her biting critique showed no partisan leanings yesterday when she and Reid laid into Gibbs for ridiculous executive branch policies that actually use social media to limit and “tightly control” the content of Townhall meetings and press briefings. The debate begins when Gibbs insists that Reid submit questions via Facebook and Twitter to be answered “tomorrow” rather than just opening the forum to on-the-spot questions.

Gibbs plays dopey, telling Reid to “get on his e-mail address” while Reid tries to explain how refusal to answer questions isn’t open or transparent. Gibbs giggles throughout the exchange in a way that makes you want to slap him, and really only proves the two annoyed reporters right by dancing around answering questions.

Two minutes in Thomas brings it, saying, “I’m amazed… I’m amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency,” and cites a pattern of “controlling the press.” She tells Gibbs that the Obama administration’s “formal engagements are prepackaged,” and says that “calling reporters the night before, telling them they’re going to be called on- that’s shocking.” When asked if she sent in a question, she goes all grandma-don’t-play-that by snapping, “I don’t have to email it- I can tell you right now!”

Indeed, the exchange raises some interesting questions about the role of social networking and new media in the Obama administration. With all the Obama love being spread thickly and freely around the blogosphere, we kind of took it for granted that this presidency would use the technologies we all embrace- Facebook, Twitter, e-mail- to advance communication between press and the executive branch, or even your average dude and the White House. I’ll go a step further- we were lead to believe that. Obama sends me Facebook updates more than my best friend.

But is the Obama administration now using our “friend status” to filter valid questions and create an illusion of rapport with the press and by extension, the people? Bill Maher called Obama out early on for mocking the most popular question at one of the first Townhall meetings he had as president. In the meeting, Obama laughed at “the internet” for wanting to know if he had plans to consider legalizing and taxing marijuana to create jobs and create some desperately needed capital. Maher fumed:

“For Obama to mock, ‘I don’t know what’s going on the Internet,’ well excuse me…the Internet is America now. That sounded like John McCain.”

Well yeah, I want to know to- do they not know what’s going on on “the internet” or do they not care?