Thursday, August 6

Smelling Fish: The White House


As an award-winning former campaign and political reporter with experience covering the Enron scandal in 2002 turned senior campaign advisor for the Obama campaign, Linda Douglas told Media Bistro that "my intention is that I won't spin … I absolutely vow that I will tell the truth.”

Unfortunately, it seems something happened on her way to the White House.

As communications director for the administration’s Health Reform Office, Douglas seems to be employing the White House's handicapped communication channel as a means for little more than pushing back against citizen dissent. In fact, her communication team suggests taking it one step further, asking everyday citizens to tattle on their friends, family, and neighbors to the government.

"There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov" — The White House

While the post was penned by Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media who oversees Whitehouse.gov, which nowadays is closely coordinated with Internet operations at the Democratic National Committee instead of the American people, Douglas' late response to Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn's appropriately scathing letter clearly places credit where credit is due.

"There is a lot of misinformation about health insurance reform circulating on the internet and elsewhere. Some of it is intentionally misleading,” Douglas responded in an e-mail. “We want to be sure people have the facts about health insurance reform that will lower costs, protect consumers from insurance regulations that deny them coverage and assure quality and affordable health care for all Americans. We are not compiling lists or sources of information. We may post fact checks from time to time to be sure Americans know the truth about health insurance reform.”

By fact checks, Douglas seems to be referring to sound bites like those she used in her video appearance, placing what President Obama has said over what may or may not be included in any legislation. Specifically, she cites speeches where Obama has said that "if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them."

However, that bit of misinformation has already been vetted as inaccurate by media outlets like Investor's Business Daily because "Those who currently have private individual coverage won't be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers." Given how often employees change jobs, the likelihood you won't automatically be enrolled at some point seems painfully obvious. And, worse, once you are in the grips of it, leaving seems likely to be reminiscent of the lyrics to "Hotel California."

But all that aside, the real communication debacle that Douglas will forever regret is allowing any mention of asking citizens to collect and report "fishy" communication, which takes us all the way back to McCarthy-era politics except without the benefit of Edward R. Murrow. Someone needs to share with Douglas the lessons learned from the past, taught by journalists who didn't trade their hats for political hocus pocus.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. [...] We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. — Edward R. Murrow, See It Now

Murrow might have been talking about a time when external threats struck fear into the hearts of the people, but they apply equally well when peddling fear seems to be quickly becoming a pastime for White House politics, a place that ought to represent its owners (the American people) over political agendas.

That's right. Elected officials merely borrow the space. They do not own it outright.

And if that idea sounds fishy to you, feel free to submit this post to be scrutinized and "fact checked" by government staffers who are paid with your tax money to support the plan you may not even want. Maybe they'll learn something, even if it is something as simple as how one heavy-handed post in social media tends to erode credibility at a faster pace.

Americans have a right to express themselves publicly and ought to retain the right to express themselves privately, without fear that mere opinions may be reported to the government. Truly, if Douglas didn't want to know the sources, she ought to have suggested people ask questions about sections they might be confused about rather than submitting "sources" so they could be corrected.

What's the difference? The difference is communication intent. One request may seek to clarify (even if that clarification is spun up by professionals) while the other smacks of collusion.

What's the cost to White House credibility? When I mentioned the White House post during a presentation in a room full of people with mixed political leanings, they all raised their hands with the hope that the government might add their names too.

2 comments:

Riva said...

This is interesting. My question is, are CATS covered under Obama family health care plan?

Rich on 8/13/09, 10:47 AM said...

Riva,

Funny. Some seniors seem to be asking the same question.

Best,
Rich

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