Obama's media formula favors 'Science Guy' Bill Nye

obama bill nye

President Obama sat down for an exclusive interview this week, but the guy asking the questions wasn't a reporter or White House correspondent. It was Bill Nye.

Nye -- known by children of the 1990s as the "Science Guy" -- is the latest non-journalist to win a one-on-one with the president as part of a White House format that showcases Obama away from aggressive questioning from the press corps.

A month ago, the president sat with "The Wire" creator David Simon in another White House-orchestrated interview. In January, Obama chatted with a trio of YouTube stars in an interview that was live-streamed on the White House's website.

During an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" last month, Obama participated in one of the talk show's signature segments. That clip, in which Obama read a collection of mean tweets, has been viewed more than 23 million times on YouTube.

And last year, the president appeared on "Between Two Ferns" with actor Zach Galifianakis to promote Obamacare. That clip has been viewed more than 10 million times on Youtube and was even nominated for an Emmy.

If news organizations are increasingly going digital, so is the White House.

The 12-minute session with Simon was published on the White House's YouTube account before getting picked up by several major news websites.

The Nye interview, which is expected to be released on Friday, was also produced by the White House. It was filmed on Earth Day at Florida's Everglades and focused on a host of topics related to science and the environment.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Related: BuzzFeed editor interviews Obama

As Nye put it, the conversation provided Obama with "an informal way of making a speech."

"The president had things he wanted to say and he said them," Nye said.

"We really had a conversation. We didn't interrupt each other -- talked about this and that, agreed on this, disagreed on certain things," he added.

Nye said he jumped at the chance to participate when the White House reached out last week.

"[Obama] knows I'm like-minded when it comes to the environment. He didn't bring in Marc Morano or somebody like that," Nye said, referring to the outspoken climate change denier. "I think it's cool."

That issue might be particularly well-suited to promote on the Internet, the primary source of news and entertainment for many young people.

"Climate change is a generational issue," Nye said. "Universally, millennials are very concerned about the climate and their future."

obama youtube
President Barack Obama answers a question from YouTube while holding an online town hall forum on health care at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, July 1, 2009.

Obama hasn't completely abandoned extended interviews with traditional journalists, but even those have taken on a greater digital focus. In the span of a month earlier this year, Obama sat down with BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and Vice. Landing those interviews was a coup for each of those outlets. The interview with Simon, on the other hand, was something of a triumph for Obama.

Their conversation last month covered a number of topics related to criminal justice and drug policy, dominant themes in Simon's critically acclaimed HBO drama. But the president was also able to show his casual side, and he was rewarded with a day's worth of positive headlines.

"I'm a huge fan of 'The Wire,'" Obama told Simon at the start of the interview. More than one web outlet gushed that Obama "geeked out" about "The Wire." NPR's headline dubbed Obama a "Wire Superfan."

This media strategy has its critics. Many reporters have bristled at the lack of access afforded by the White House, and that resentment intensifies when Obama participates in interviews with non-journalists. The interview with the three YouTube personalities, which was held two days after Obama's State of the Union address, drew criticism from certain circles. But as White House press secretary Josh Earnest explained at the time: Obama understood who he would be reaching.

"This is a way for the president to spend a little time talking about some of these issues that he'll discuss in the State of the Union with individuals that have a large presence on YouTube," Earnest said.


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