The [Wednesday] Papers
By Steve Rhodes
Despite her self-congratulations and the national "debate" it touched off, Lynn Sweet's question last July about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was a low point in media coverage of the president in 2009.
Because it obscured the far more important question asked by Tribune reporter Christi Parsons, which went virtually unremarked upon as the media chased its new shiny object.
PARSONS: During the campaign you promised that health care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN, and that hasn't happened. And your administration recently turned down a request from a watchdog group seeking a list of health care executives who have visited the White House to talk about health care reform. Also, the TARP inspector general recently said that your White House is withholding too much information on the bank bailouts. So my question for you is, are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?
OBAMA: Well, on the list of health care executives who've visited us, most of the time you guys have been in there taking pictures, so it hasn't been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But frankly these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating.
With respect to all the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kickoff event was here on C-SPAN, and at a certain point you start getting into all kinds of different meetings - Senate Finance is having a meeting, the House is having a meeting. If they wanted those to be on C-SPAN then I would welcome it. I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.
And the last question with respect to TARP. Let me take a look at what exactly they say we have not provided. I think that we've provided much greater transparency than existed prior to our administration coming in. It is a big program. I don't know exactly what's been requested. I'll find out and I will have an answer for you.
Let us review. The identity of health care executives visiting the White House to discuss the reform bill wasn't a secret because news photographers had taken photos of some of them. As if the nation's health care executives could be identified by face. And then a letter was finally sent out - why am I skeptical about this - listing all those executives.
And TARP, well, if the Bush administration is going to be the bar for measuring the Obama administration, this is already the greatest presidency ever.
But most important - and now even more relevant given news I will get to shortly - is the C-SPAN question and response. Obama didn't promise that the health care reform "kickoff event" would be televised on C-SPAN. He didn't promise that he would welcome congressional committees putting their negotiations on C-SPAN "if they wanted." He promised during his campaign - forcefully and repeatedly - that he would put the negotiations on C-SPAN.
Just two examples, as noted by Politifact, which deems this (another) promise broken.
January 31, 2008: "That's what I will do in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process."
August 21, 2008: "People say, 'Well, you have this great health care plan, but how are you going to pass it? You know, it failed in '93.' And what I've said is, I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies - they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process."
Note Obama's phrase, "what I've said." He said it - over and over - for the better part of a year.
And now it's finally caught up with him, even if only at the very final stage of ironing out a bill. C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb is calling on Obama and congressional Democrats to open up their closed-door negotiations to his cameras.
"Pragmatists" will say that's simply not possible. I say, Why not? Really. Why not? Obama seemed to believe it was possible. Unless you think he never had any intention of following through; unless you think he baldly lied.
Is a campaign promise a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?
The political pros don't believe campaign promises are real. Many journalists don't either.
"Out on the campaign trail, you say what needs to be said," wrote former Tribune senior writer Charles Madigan in an Op-Ed on Sunday.
You wouldn't do that unless your target audience believed you. If everyone knew you weren't serious, there would be no point to the charade. But some journalists - and presidential scholars, as Madigan is described these days - don't seem to feel the need to let unsuspecting voters in on the secret.
And if any candidate has had true believers in recent years, it was Barack Obama. Madigan knows this - he wrote a book (undisclosed by the Tribune) called Destiny Calling: How The People Elected Barack Obama that was published in October.
Parsons and Sweet asked their questions at a press conference meant to be about health care. That certainly doesn't mean reporters have to play by those rules. But in this case, Sweet went off-topic with a question of remote value - seemingly in search of a headline about an event the president knew little about. Parsons made the mistake of asking a three-part question, though the president addressed each part. That's a classic mistake made time-and-again by reporters who give their subjects room to broaden an answer to their liking while evading the central point of the question. In this case, it would have been nice if Sweet - or another reporter - would have followed up by asking the president then and there if he was reneging on his pledge to broadcast health care negotiations on C-SPAN. And if another reporter would have followed up on that by asking if he really meant it when he made his campaign vow. It's of far more import now, isn't it, than the president's feelings about Henry Louis Gates?
"'Push, Billy! Push! Billy, I can see the head! Don't give up! Push!'"
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