Fishbowl Five: SOTU with CNN’s Peter Hamby

Peter Hamby

Peter HambyPeter Hamby occupies a unique position within CNN. There are now three full time digital correspondents working for CNN, but Hamby was the first -and still the only one covering politics.  As such he makes TV hits, and appears in web videos and writes for the web. And for tonight’s state of the union coverage, he will be moderating a “Politi-cast” of the speech via live stream on Hamby will do a sort of “play by play” of the SOTU, with friends Tommy Vietor, a former Obama White House spox, and Tim Miller, a former RNC flack. They will offering running commentary -smartphones in hand -that will tap into live reaction of the speech on Twitter and the immediate impact it is having on other social media.

Coverage begins when Peter and Co. “roll into the set a little bit before the speech and get settled in,” and will go through the Republican and Tea Party responses. The trio will be tweeting during the stream, and if you want to participate in the conversation, they will be using the hashtag #CNNSOTU. Of course, if, for some reason, you just want to watch the speech itself  without commentary (BORING!) you can do that to via another CNN feed. Or you could just watch TV.

We talked with Hamby over the phone to get a better idea of what he has planned for tonight’s digital coverage:

Where did the idea for this “play by play” coverage come from?

During the conventions, someone had the crazy idea to let me do a web show from the grill, both in Charlotte and Tampa. And the idea was to just talk about politics and dissect the conventions and the sate of the campaign in a more causal and maybe irreverent sort of vibe. And they gave me the green light to book the guests I wanted. Now I’m 32, I’m not that young, but if you look at the pundit class that appears on the Sunday shows, they all tend to be older, the tend to be former officials. So I got some journalists, people who were working in politics, people around my age. And the conversation felt very authentic and very natural, and it was very fun. So this is replicating that a little bit.

It’ll be me and Tim and Tommy watching the speech, adding informed commentary -it’s going to be a little edgier, a little more irreverent. The feeling we’re going for really is: What people who work in politics do and say as they’re watching an event like this. We’re providing an option for people who want more voices in the room. We’re going to be reading Twitter and making a few jokes and adding our insight to what the president says and the Republican responses after.

Does this new culture of instant commentary via social media add to or distract from events like this?

You know, a friend of mine told me “When I was in college following the 2000 election, I couldn’t get any information that I wanted. I could wait to watch ‘Inside Politics’ everyday and I could read the newspapers, but that’s it.” The flood of information today if you’re a political junky is a really good thing and that’s what side I end up coming down on.

But to your point that the explosion of platforms and the feeling that everyone can kind of comment on the event -it does kind of trivialize things. That’s absolutely true to an extent, but to pretend that that’s not the media environment we live in would be pretty naive. You can’t just pretend that the media doesn’t exist, that these platforms don’t exist. I mean last week, Rand Paul joined Snapchat and people mocked that, but there are 8 million people on Snapchat. Yeah, probably not all of them are going to subscribe to Rand Paul, but that’s more people than any morning show. The media environment is totally fractured. But I just want to stress, we are giving people an option. This is a fun fresh way to watch the SOTU. If you want to watch to old way, you can watch the old way. We’re just experimenting here.

You’ve Snapchatted with Rand Paul right?

Yes! I was very proud. I was actually having lunch with a buddy on Capitol Hill the day after he joined, and so I sent a Snapchat to him and said, “This is Peter from CNN,” with a selfy from Constitution Ave. It wasn’t completely organic – I gave a spokesman a heads up that I had sent this Snapchat, but then the Senator called me an hour later. I was talking to him about strategies for campaigns and leveraging social media and mobile.  I hope I’m the first reporter in history that’s done that, but then again maybe that actually embarrassing…

What role will new technology play in helping CNN distinguish its political reporting from that at MSNBC and Fox?

Well, we do actual reporting. And while that sometimes might not work on television, I think we are in a world where we don’t just compete with MSNBC and Fox in terms of news. We compete with the BBC, The New York Times, Buzz Feed and The Washington Post. And for millions of people, the primary entry point for getting that news is their phones and their computers and their tablets. One really refreshing thing about CNN, I remember the first time I met Jeff Zucker, he said, “I’m the same. I get my news from my phone.”  And he has devoted lots of resources to our digital platforms. They were nice enough to create this job for me -I’m a political reporter for CNN Digital, but its not segmented. I go on television, I go the web, I write for the web. It’s just that I’m native to the web. My first instinct isn’t to go on TV, but rather to write distinctive content for the website.  I just think, the whole cross platform thing, we get that now.

Does all this instant reaction and social media coverage change the way politicians, including Pres. Obama give speeches?

Look, Obama has always been pretty fluent in Internet-speak and has made references to websites. But at heart the man is a writer and cares about the word and how he delivers words. I think the problem with the state of the union, and those people who give responses -whether Republicans or Democrats -is that SOTUs tend not to make tons of news, they dont drive numbers, and in that vacuum of news, the potential for gaffes is tremendous. Especially with Twitter, even the most minor things go viral. Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Tim Kaine are all examples. The web exacerbates the small funny things that can very quickly become big things.

But are politicians changing the way they speak? Not necessarily. I think they’re just more wary of the media. They will certainly change way they talk at press conferences or just have less press conference, because they are genuinely afraid of messing up or saying something stupid. We saw that with both 2012 campaigns – they kept the press at arms length. Now a days, you can push your message through different platforms. You don’t need to go through the mainstream media and if you do, you might say something silly or some provocative that becomes the next big story.