Sending a petition to your government is as old as politics, but what the Obama Administration is doing with its We the People site is novel. Brooke talks with Time Magazine White House Correspondent Michael Scherer about how the site is allowing the administration to communicate with some of its most fierce opponents.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. We just heard Bob assess the relevance of the White House Press Corps, and certainly presidents have long sought ways to communicate outside the media filter. For instance, the Obama administration launched its “We the People” online petition sight in 2011. Once a petition garners 100,000 names – that number keeps rising – it’s guaranteed a response from the White House. You might recall that petition to build a death star, which earned the wry reply, quote, “The administration does not support blowing up planets.” It doesn’t matter what a petition calls for, as long as theoretically it’s something the government can do something about.
Not long ago, radio host Alex Jones told listeners to petition for CNN’s Piers Morgan to be deported for his views on guns.
ALEX JONES: He needs to be on the first airplane shackled out of this country, because he’s here trying to take our Second Amendment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The White House sent everyone who’d signed that, and similar gun-related petitions, a video response from the President.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. We’ve got a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s been handed down from generation to generation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Time Magazine White House Correspondent Michael Scherer says the petitions provide the White House with a uniquely effective way to communicate.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, if you’re sitting in the White House these days, you have a problem. Thirty years ago, something like 50 million people would tune into the nightly news, and so you could just go to the three networks. Right now the media is so splintered people are getting their news from niche outlets. And a lot of them are the President's opponents - talk radio listeners are the biggest category. And the President really has no way of communicating directly with them. So when this idea of creating an online petition system inside the White House came up, that was the real selling point for the senior staff. The public would self-organize into groups around the issues they cared about, and then the White House would be able to basically build email lists and communicate directly their message about those issues with those people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the impact of this message that Obama directed to those who signed Alex Jones’ petition?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yeah, the Alex Jones example is really a delightful one. Alex Jones is a very entertaining talk radio host who talks about the coming globalist tyranny, and he, late last year, decided that the White House petition system was a great way for him to drum up publicity for his show. And so, on a number of issues, including deporting Piers Morgan, the CNN host, was encouraging his rather large audience to go to the White House website, and now the reporters were seeing hundreds of thousands of people signing onto these petitions. And so, he thought this was a wonderful thing.
At the White House, they were equally happy that a talk radio host was driving so much of his audience base directly into their hands, and it gave them the opportunity that they had actually always hoped they would have, a way of directly communicating what they think is the biggest fallacy of the gun debate, that Obama wants to take your guns away and, you know, the White House maintains and the President’s proposals are pretty clear, that they don't want to take any guns that anybody has. And the traffic on that video was actually very high.
The 400,000 people who were clicking on that video were coming to the video because most of them had expressed concern about guns and what the White House was doing. So the audience had self-selected and delivered itself up to White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do we know that this had any impact, this Obama video?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, after the video was sent out, the White House followed up by asking people on that email list to basically fill out a questionnaire about what they thought. It wasn’t a scientific poll because people weren’t required to respond, but of those people who responded - and these are people, remember, who had come into this process because they were angry at the White House – one in four, I think, said they learned something new. The majorities, in some cases, said, you know, they were pretty happy with this process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it was used in this way to communicate with the President's opponents. It's also used to deepen the relationship with the President’s allies.
MICHAEL SCHERER: So there are a lot of friendly petitions, as well. For instance, last year there's was a petition for the President to do something about comprehensive immigration reform. After they got the petition, the White House took the list of emails they had and they sent people an invite to join a conference call with some policy folks at the White House. It was a way for the White House to show real engagement.
You know, another interesting example is a couple years ago there was a fight over online piracy and Hollywood was pushing for new rules that would protect their content. Silicon Valley types, people who work in the Internet, were upset about this bill. They petitioned the White House. As a result of that petition, the White House made public its position on this bill, and, and the White House was pretty skeptical of the Hollywood effort. And by making public its position – the White House doesn’t always take a position on every bill – it helped lead to the defeat of the bill in the Senate. So there was actually a causal relationship between the petition and the petitioners’ wishes being fulfilled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've noted that petitions have a long political history, that the Declaration of Independence includes the line, “Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” So how long have petitions been around?
MICHAEL SCHERER: They’ve basically been around as long as human civilization’s been around. Back in Mesopotamia, they were known as “letter prayers” and they were written on clay tablets. In Egypt, they were written on papyrus. Roman law was actually made up, in large part, of responses to petitions. For most of the history, petitions were basically prayers to a higher authority. They, they were ways for monarchs to govern. You know, the people would come to them and say they're upset about the taxes on their goats, or whatever the issue was, and the monarch could appear responsive and basically control his kingdom.
That changed when the printing press was developed. Suddenly, petitions became not just ways of praying for relief but also for protesting and pushing. The Internet is sort of taking this petition system to the next step, because you also have an ability to create two-way communication much more effectively than you did with just the printing press. And that's really what the White House is embracing here. They’re not just getting a list of names of people who want a change on whatever the policy is. They’re able to talk back directly to those people and, in some cases, those people are then again able to talk back to the White House. And so, you have a dialogue on a real mass scale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Thanks for having me, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Scherer is Time Magazine’s White House correspondent.