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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

German Press Corps Can't Handle Government's Switch to Announcements via Twitter

The German government’s official spokesman is using Twitter to rapidly disseminate information directly to its citizens, and the staid German press is freaking out about it.

  • April 3, 2011
The German government’s press secretary dares speak to anyone with internet access

Last week the German government’s official spokesman found himself forced to defend his decision to announce official government business via Twitter. The problem wasn’t so much that he’d made an announcement – that Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting the U.S. – via Twitter: It was that he had not first announced it at a press conference, and this had caught the German press corps flat-footed.

On the 25th of March, the controversy led to this hilarious or merely unfortunate interchange between a member of the press and Herr Christoph Steegmans, a representative for Germany’s equivalent of the White House press secretary:

QUESTION [from a member of the press corps]: Dr.Steegmans, as an older man, who is not so skilled with these newfangled forms of communication, a basic question: has there been an announcement from the Press Office, that now important information is also broadcast over Twitter, and one possibly has to register as client, customer or follower - I do not know, what that means?

(helpfully translated by Tim Skellett)

It also doesn’t help that, according to Skellett, “a standby government spokesman [made] fun of the reporters’s problems with coming to terms with Twitter.”

This switch to rapid dissemination via Twitter was, according to the Twitter account of Steffen Seibert, the German government’s official spokesperson, authorized by none other than Angela Merkel herself. Here’s the Google machine translation of his disclosing tweet:

@Neuwerth After many governments worldwide to do it, I found it [useful] for us to [#tweet] at the time. #Chancellor agreed.

More than a week later, he’s still having to defend the decision. Here’s a Tweet from April 2:

.@blogdiscourse [I] had no idea that [our decision would make] such waves. My Twitter is not a circumvention of the journalists, but an outreach to other[s]

And that, in a nutshell, is the sturm und drang that has accompanied the disintermediating effects of social media. If the German government’s official spokesman can deliver news straight to the people, any time he feels like it, how are the German press to keep up? Are they not gatekeepers whose priority access to information helps justify their role in the media ecosystem?

Not, apparently, any longer. Here’s how one member of the press corps responded to that development:

“Is that safe?”

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