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MEET THE PRESS' David Gregory Interviews Ben Smith

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In this week's "Meet the Press" PRESS Pass conversation, David Gregory sat down with Editor-in-Chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, who weighed in on the role of social media, particularly Twitter, in the 2012 race. He cited the campaigns' ability to be "on the cutting edge" of social media and how they use it to drive conversation. A transcript from the interview follows.

He made the point that both campaigns were aggressively engaged on Twitter, adding that campaigning is "basically the communications business." One of the prime reasons for being engaged so heavily in the medium, Smith argues, is because both sides are interested in "shaping reporters' first impressions" of events – and Twitter is a venue in which consensus can be built by a few influential members of the press corps that cover the candidates.

Not only does the rapid rise of social media help presidential campaigns and the reporters that cover them, Smith said it allows ordinary citizens to join the public discourse as well.

"People who had previously been outside could see that conversation and jump into it if they had interesting things to say."

PRESS Pass: Ben Smith

David Gregory: I'm David Gregory, and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation. This week: looking at the 2012 election and the rapid rise of online news and social media, and how it came to change the way campaigns are covered, and run for that matter. I'm joined by Ben Smith, Editor-In-Chief of Buzzfeed.com, a popular site that aims to change the face of political reporting. Ben, good to see you.

SMITH: Thanks for having me on.

GREGORY: And obviously, just a hugely impactful figure on Twitter as well. Here we are. We have come through really the first social media election of our time.

SMITH: Absolutely.

GREGORY: What did that mean?

SMITH: What I think it meant was that there was a political conversation that used to happen on the bus, in campaign headquarters, in TV studios – started to happen on blogs around 2008 where if maybe you'd read something on a blog and you wanted somebody at another blog to see that you'd attacked him, so you'd e-mail it to him to make sure he saw it and would respond. And then, you know, this cycle, what happened was all there was this centralized stream on Twitter where all of these things that were being said were being said in this very direct way. People were saying them to each other; people who had previously been outside could see that conversation and jump into it if they had interesting things to say.

GREGORY: Right, so this was all of a sudden, this level of interactivity in political dialogue became bigger than anything that the media – traditional media – could do on its own. Here you had, you know, traditional media doing its thing, and then people, real-time, talking back, and then talking to each other about it.

SMITH: And becoming – and people kind of fighting their way into the conversation on the merits of being interesting people with interesting things to say.

GREGORY: Yeah.

SMITH: Which was really cool. And on the other hand, people screaming their way into it –

GREGORY: Right.

SMITH: By being psychopaths. But that's fine.

GREGORY: And we talk about how polarized the country is. We still have what could be a 51-48, relatively narrow margin of victory for the President, even though it would be much larger in the Electoral College, and this is where we've been now since 2000. And then we see this reflected in particularly nasty ways. I mean, just a couple of examples: Donald Trump on election night, tweeting: 'He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country.' Of course, the President will end up winning the popular vote. But, again, just the tone of it. Here's one from Elise Johnson: 'Romney made me want to hop through the TV and just assassinate his ass' – her word. Jack Welch, talking about a jobless report: 'Unbelievable jobs numbers – these Chicago guys will do anything. Can't debate, so change numbers.' That was back in October. Tone, tenor, and message – really polarizing on Twitter.

SMITH: Yeah, you really feel that polarization. Which, you know, maybe has always been out there. These are maybe things, something that Jack Welch may have said to the Guy Standing next to him –

GREGORY: Yeah.

SMITH: Or, you know, or what somebody might say to their spouse, to their friends, now suddenly popping onto Twitter. I do think there's a bit of a learning curve with this. We did a post on election night of people, you know, demanding Obama's assassination, which is something, you know, again, maybe something somebody might say to somebody in a bar. Now you say that, Secret Service is likely to pay you a visit. We got a lot of e-mails from folks on that list saying 'hey, could you please take me off that, I certainly didn't really mean to say that in public.'

GREGORY: Right, and then, well, the learning curve, or - what is it they think is going to happen. There's a lack of filter, and it extends to politics too. I mean, here's an exchange: Eric Fehrnstrom, for Romney, tweeting David Axelrod. He says, 'Romney living in #MadMenTimeWarp. You mean when unemployment was lower and the economy was expanding?' Axe writes back '@EricFehrn: No, when Russia was our greatest foe, bosses could dictate on women's health and Etch-a-Sketch was a toy, not a political strategy.' I mean this is real, kind of political warfare all on Twitter.

SMITH: Right, and for somebody like me, or perhaps you, who enjoys that stuff - I mean, I love that, it's fun to see that stuff play out in public, in a way where, you know, where we're seeing the same thing that our readers are seeing and it's a much more kind of fluid kind of engagement.

GREGORY: Well, I guess from different points of view, there's a journalistic piece to this, there's a political piece, and then there's just a political polarization piece. What does it do to our politics and how polarized we become as a country when we have this as a backdrop for conversation?

SMITH: Well, one of the really strange things this cycle – I think you can blame it not only on Twitter; on cable news, on the partisan press in certain ways – was that people, you know, it wasn't just that people had their own opinions; they really did develop their own sets of facts. And conservatives in particular widely fell for this theory that the polls were all wrong, in maybe a conspiratorial way, maybe it was an error. But it was really interesting on election night to see kind of reality intercede. And all of these voices on Twitter had been yelling that the polls were wrong did not then, you know, demand that the numbers be un-skewed. They just basically fell silent, because there's nothing you can say.

GREGORY: Right. Now, how do the campaigns operate? Again, we saw it here - first social media election. How did these campaigns adapt to that reality? How did they use it?

SMITH: Well, I think, you know, campaigns are always on the cutting edge of this, because they're basically – it's basically the communications business, it's the media business and that they're in too. So I think their communications shops in particular were very, very aggressively engaged on Twitter and very interested in, you know, shaping these reporters' first impressions and seeing that these stories, you know, 'did Obama lose the debate?' Like by half an hour in you could feel on Twitter that this consensus had developed, and the campaigns working really hard to shape these early consensuses around events and things to make sure that their story got out. You know, before the story had even finished happening.

GREGORY: Well, that's very interesting because it's not like the next morning you can get a sense from the morning papers and the networks in terms of what the flow was. You can see it real time. I had, in the course of the debates, the Obama team emailing me saying, 'Hey, I saw you tweet about this, trust me, we feel this, that or the other ' - so really fighting that narrative as they see it real time.

SMITH: Yeah. Absolutely.

GREGORY: In terms of an organizational tool, how do you think they used it? Is that something that factored into a turnout operation?

SMITH: Yeah, you know in 2008, on Election Day, Barack Obama tweeted once. Like 'Please remember to vote.'

GREGORY: Yeah.

SMITH: That was it. And now they're certainly using it to reach their supporters. Actually, the most retweeted tweet in history, one of my reporters, John Herman, I guess, reported that night, was his, was his tweet of an image that they had won, an image of him hugging Michelle.

GREGORY: Yeah.

SMITH: And like hundreds of thousands of his followers, and fans, retweeted that.

GREGORY: What about the impact on journalism? At Buzzfeed, what's the mission of Buzzfeed?

SMITH: Well, I mean, the way we see our political reporting is really that Twitter is the front page. Not Buzzfeed.com, not our politics verticle, but Twitter, just on the assumption that people who really are intensely engaged in politics are seeing that centralized conversation on Twitter. And so then, really the incentive is in some ways is a pretty old-school incentive. It's to break news, it's to advance the conversation, it's to do something that's going to be new to people, not to rewrite the last story.

GREGORY: But that is the platform. In other words, that's the platform that people digest, even though in some ways it can be an aggregator, it can still be a place that sends you, so you –

SMITH: Sure, we're hoping that people will see our links on Twitter and come read them on the site and find other cool stuff

GREGORY: Yeah. Right.

SMITH: And our assumption is that that's where people are going to go.

GREGORY: And that sort of determines their choices.

SMITH: Yeah.

GREGORY: But content still has to be, there has to be a lot of content. Whether it's on television –

SMITH: Yeah

GREGORY: Or in print, to support a platform that points you in all kinds of different directions.

SMITH: Oh, for sure. And the cool thing about Twitter, actually, is that - and about social media in general - from a reporter's perspective, you can't really trick people into sharing something. You can trick them into clicking on a misleading headline; you can trick a search engine into giving you the top searchers, if you do some technical tricks. In terms of sharing, nobody is going to say 'Hey, this is a great story, read it,' unless they actually think that. 'Hey this is a scoop.' I mean, and so I think the incentive is basically for good journalism.

GREGORY: But there is, you talked about before, that the two sides become entrenched ideologically. And what you have now - and it was talk radio, and it was cable news, and now the advent of social media platforms, that are so powerful. You have this connective tissue that binds all, you know, the two sides together against each other.

SMITH: Yeah.

GREGORY: Not much of a middle left, then, is there?

SMITH: Well at least there's a connection, right? I mean, there's no way for Sean Hannity, to, on his cable show 'at reply' some opposing host and have them engage each other. On Twitter, there is, you know, there is a middle. There are people - there are Libertarians, there's social conservatives - who don't fit into these things and talk to both sides. And obviously it's very polarized, but there's also, sometimes, a reality check - if somebody says something that's outrageously false, people on the other side can pretty aggressively correct them. And often, people who are partisans don't actually want to be wrong. Not always. But there is some way for that conversation to happen.

GREGORY: So where does it go? How does it keep progressing, do you think?

SMITH: I mean I think that's a great question. I mean I think, you know, Twitter as a media company, is thinking, in some case, trying to move towards being more of a broadcast, more of an old school thing - having people visit Twitter and seeing tagged pages. And, I don't know, I mean, I think these things can change very, very fast, as we've seen. I would hate it to predict what the dominant space for the next election is going to be.

GREGORY: What about journalistically? You think about sourcing. And some of the lack of reliability you're seeing and how quickly incorrect information can proliferate.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. You saw that during Sandy. This one Twitter user started spreading lies, deliberately,

GREGORY: Yeah.

SMITH: And it was somebody who had been trusted, who people had developed a relationship to, and thought, you know, was a source of good information. He was playing these crazy pranks and they went everywhere. I mean, I think it's a learning curve for everybody. I mean, a lot of it is the traditional journalistic relationship with sources and figuring when somebody is true and figuring out when they're reliable. And in that weird case where a reliable source of yours goes and deliberately lies, that's a very difficult thing to fix in any medium.

GREGORY: Buzzfeed though, also partnering with the New York Times for some longer form, talk to me a little bit about that.

SMITH: We did a lot of video around the conventions, really trying to pull online video and these Twitter conversations together.

GREGORY: And where do you see that progressing to?

SMITH: I mean, I think there are a lot of opportunities for these traditional companies to - and a lot of them are very aggressively, like you guys, like the Times, kind of leapfrogging into these spaces. I mean, in a weird way, nobody has an advantage; if you started two years ago, you started a hundred years ago, it's so new right now, that anyone could jump in.

GREGORY: Ben Smith, thank you so much for your perspective. Appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you.


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