Moments before Elena Kagan is introduced to the nation as President Barack Obama's choice for the Supreme Court, the president turns to her and offers a mock-helpful suggestion: "Just don't trip. That'll be really embarrassing." Kagan chuckles and shoots back playfully, "It's very nice of you to say that."
It's a small moment, recorded for history in a recent edition of "West Wing Week," a video diary of presidential doings that the White House posts each week on its website, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere.
Now entering their third month, the 6- to 8-minute-long videos are promoted as "your guide to everything that's happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
That's a stretch. But they do serve as a chronological stroll through Obama's week, and roll in snippets of behind-the-scenes action at the White House and oddball bits of humor.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest, who narrates the videos, says they help fill "the president's commitment to ensure his White House is the most transparent in history."
The view from outside is mixed: There is praise for another smart use of new media — and criticism of the end result as awkward and ineffective.
Kathleen Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center, says the videos allow the White House to give the impression of openness.
"That's the value of it before you've ever looked at the substance," she says.
But Jamieson said the finished product comes off as "amateur video," most useful to a high schooler who has to write a term paper about what the president does in a typical week.
"You could get the impression from this that the president does a lot of things," Jamieson said. "You wouldn't know that any of them are important."
Yet GOP strategist David All, who is organizing a fall conference on the Internet's role in activism, media and politics, thinks the videos are both entertaining and effective.
The videos may contain a lot of fluff, he said, "but for the most part it can be useful for the president." They blend backstage color and humor with standard political messages and information about Obama's activities, he said. They also could be a valuable historical record of Obama's presidency, All said.
The videos often begin with some sort of offbeat message from a government official. One week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, tells viewers: "Joining the discussion on my Facebook page is no substitute for a PhD in physics. However, it's a lot faster and cheaper." Last week, Small Business Administrator Karen Mills highlighted Small Business Week events, then added: "Let's make every week Small Business Week — except for Shark Week. We don't want to mess with that."
From there, the videos march, day by day, though the president's week, with clips of public events and private conversation. As Obama gets last-minute instructions before a state visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, he jokes with his wife about who should stand where, then adds, "I've only been briefed like eight times on this."
There's a deliberate randomness to the footage: Obama is seen talking on the phone with the new prime minister of Britain, he's posing for a photo with White House interns, he's meeting in the Situation Room about the Gulf oil spill, he's checking out an electric arc furnace in Ohio, he's kibbitzing with Connecticut's national champion women's basketball team.
The videos often end with a light moment, and the first one gave a small nod to the creator of the weekly series.
As Obama is seen striding into the White House, he asks an unseen cameraman, "Arun, why are you filming me now?"
That would be White House videographer Arun Chaudhary. He said in an e-mail he got the idea to do "West Wing Week" because he had "lots of interesting clips that couldn't really stand on their own but did when collected together."
The "West Wing" series made its debut this spring amid concerns among White House reporters that the Obama administration is trying to control its message by limiting press access and substituting its own photos and video of certain events. While there are ongoing concerns about access overall, Caren Bohan, a Reuters reporter and member of the White House Correspondents Association board, said there's no indication the West Wing videos are costing reporters access.
In addition to appearing on the White House blog, the videos are tweeted, turned into podcasts, and posted weekly on Facebook and sites such as YouTube, where most log less than 5,000 views.
That might not seem like a lot of viewers when compared to viral clips of dancing cats and other oddities, says All, but it's nothing to be sniffed at.
Those viewers most likely are bloggers and other opinion leaders who are seeing events through the White House prism.
"What this is really showing is that the media doesn't have the only game in town anymore," All said.
Most recent "West Wing Week": http://tinyurl.com/38hx2yp
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