What's your lawmaker up to? Check Twitter, YouTube, Facebook

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2009 

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lawmakers are finding new means to pour their words into the ears of constituents.

Tools like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have joined the old standbys of the press release and the congressional frank. Even e-mail is so last year, as lawmakers and their tech-savvy staffers try telling their own stories in fresh ways.

"If there's a new way to reach people out there, it's in our interest to try it," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

Radanovich is ahead of the pack, in some ways. He is one of 11 California House members now using Twitter, the increasingly popular micro-messaging service. This makes him an early adapter, as 42 California House members are still not, as the latest neologism puts it, tweeting.

With Twitter, succinct messages of up to 140 characters each can be blasted out to subscribers. This is about the length of this entire paragraph.

In theory, the messaging can instantaneously convey every passing congressional thought. The speed and spontaneity are supposed to encourage at least the impression of candor, cracking through the traditional media filter.

"It's another way to communicate with constituents and people interested in Congress," Radanovich said. "If you get the key words out there, you can really get a following."

Other times, the congressional Twitter messages resemble nothing more than old wine in new bottles. And while many House members may be contemplating Twitter, the current "It Girl" of new media, others question its worth.

"I don't really see a need for it right now," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I'm not against it, but I just don't see the benefit."

One hundred and ten members of Congress -- roughly one in five - currently have Twitter accounts, according to the Tweet.Congress.org Web site. This number will certainly grow. Mike Jensen, press secretary for Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said Friday the congressman "is considering, and exploring, several options to increase his efforts to communicate with his constituents."

Radanovich and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, were the first two California House members to start using Twitter. So far, they have been filing a combination of quick thoughts, process updates and traditional press release headlines.

"I had a lot of great meetings in the district this week despite the crippling water allocation news from the Bureau of Reclamation," Radanovich messaged last month.

More recently, Radanovich let his 435 Twitter subscribers know the following: "10:00am CTCP subcommittee hearing on the reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act."

When they are at their most conventional, political Twitter messages come straight from Spin Central. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, recently advised her 5,919 followers: "Congress, President Obama Committed to Aggressive Action to Lift Economy of Recession."

Other times, the Twitter messages suggest some flesh and blood behind the political face. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, recently advised his subscribers he was "going surfing," while McCarthy recently reported that he was "still reading Atlas Shrugged;" he called the 1,168-page tome "quite the read."

Already, the temptation to provide running commentary has brought criticism on at least one lawmaker. Republican Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior GOP member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, drew fire for his real-time Tweets delivered from Iraq, where congressional delegations usually keep their itineraries secret.

"Just landed in Baghdad," Hoekstra reported via his BlackBerry at 9:41 p.m. on Feb. 5, adding 135 minutes later that he and five other House Republicans had "moved into green zone by helicopter."

Starting a new media outlet, of course, does not guarantee its persistence. Radanovich, for instance, maintains what his congressional office calls a blog, although the last entry is dated Jan. 23. In the video realm, though, Radanovich and Nunes both maintain their own YouTube channels, loaded with clips from House floor debate and congressional hearings.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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