Mystery White House Theater 2009

For the past few days, the MediaLog has been following an interesting new development in liveblogging and political coverage. Ana Marie Cox, formerly of the political blogs Wonkette and Time magazine's Swampland, and now a columnist for The Daily Beast and a commentator for Air America radio and for MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, has been liveblogging White House daily press briefings using a platform called CoverItLive. Cox (or AMC, as she's known to fans) is joined by one or two other liveblogging companions and moderates live comments, all as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs gives his daily briefing to the White House press corps. (Here are the links to AMC's blog posts that include the press briefing liveblogs from Monday, Feb. 2; Tuesday, Feb. 3, and today, Weds. Feb. 4.)

The result is fascinating for a couple of reasons. The first, alluded to in the title to this post, is how this kind of liveblogging represents another extension of the kind of commentary that used to appear on the TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000." That show featured snarky, ironic comments to schlocky old sci-fi movies, and it launched a whole new way of approaching all kinds of cultural events. Liveblogging in general is in its essence the MST3K modus operandi adapted to a variety of settings. Liveblogs of everything from last weekend's Super Bowl to awards shows such as the Emmys and Oscars are now commonplace, and most use the same technique that the robots used on MST3K: offering a running, often sarcastic and/or ironic, commentary as an aside to a media event while that event is unfolding.

Cox's liveblogs of White House press briefings extends this kind of commentary into a whole new realm. They are, to my knowledge, the first such commentaries applied to politics or public affairs. Although you might think that MST3K-style snark and irony would have no place in a presidential press briefing, you'd be wrong. AMC's stock in trade is precisely this brand of ironic meta-reporting that attempts to deflate the pretensions of the political establishment, and she brings it to these liveblogs just as she does to everything else she writes or says. Interestingly, Cox and her fellow commentators skewer the media correspondents just as much as (perhaps more than) they do press secretary Gibbs. ABC's Jake Tapper and especially NBC's Chuck Todd are the butts of much of the snark--even legendary (and quite elderly) White House correspondent Helen Thomas is not immune to the sometimes borderline cruel remarks. To read one of these liveblogs is to enjoy a form of civic discourse the likes of which we have not seen (at least not much) heretofore.

Another reason that these liveblogs are fascinating is that I expect that they offer a new kind of insight into the workings of the White House press. Although for most of the briefings so far, Cox has simply watched the proceedings on TV while liveblogging them, for today's installment she was actually in the White House Briefing Room. This added a new level of intimacy to the snarking, in such a fashion that I imagined that it consisted of the kinds of things that the back bench press correspondents have probably been saying to each other for years, only now the comments are published for anyone to see. Few if any of the comments have to do with the substance of the presidential press briefing. Instead, AMC and friends remark upon the daily tie selections for Gibbs and the higher-profile correspondents; obsess about Chuck Todd's facial hair; and fixate upon repeated words and phrases in Gibbs' briefings (such as "jobs" and "get ahead of"). You also get a real sense of the pecking order of the correspondents in the White House press, as Cox et al attempt to deflate the pompousness of these figures at least as much as they do to Gibbs himself (indeed, so far Cox and co. seem to have a certain level of pity for the greenhorn presidential flack).

If it weren't so interesting in terms of form and style, liveblogging a presidential press briefing using sarcasm and irony might end up seeming disturbing. For now, the simple novelty of treating a White House briefing like a bad sci-fi movie makes up for any reservations one might have in such an endeavor.

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