Washington Hodgepodge: Administration Attempts to Control, Suppress, Put Spin on Health Care News Lead to Chaos

By Priest, Dana | Nieman Reports, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Washington Hodgepodge: Administration Attempts to Control, Suppress, Put Spin on Health Care News Lead to Chaos


Priest, Dana, Nieman Reports


It is 10 p.m. Saturday night and the Washington-based health care reporter has the White House's latest financing options and its calculations on private market savings spread out on the dining room table. Somewhere in the first appendix of the second document, somewhere around the section on "administrative loads," her mind wanders to a little lecture Representative Jim McDermott delivered the day before to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

"We want you to take this message back," the Washington Democrat said at a Congressional hearing. "You have to be able to explain, easily" the cost to individuals, businesses and the government. "If you can't do that for us, then we can't do it for our constituents and we're not going to vote for something we can't explain."

Obviously reporters do not have constituents, but they have readers and editors who demand readable stories about health care reform and rightfully complain if they do not get it.

From the day President Clinton announced the creation of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, until now, the White House health care team has made an inherently difficult task much harder. They have acted like the Keystone cops, trying to control, repress or spin the facts one day, handing out information the next, only to find they have misspoken and must spend the rest of the week clarifying.

Meanwhile, hundreds of skillful industry CEO's and Congressional aides, each pushing a particular view on health reform, go out of their way each day to supply reporters with "expert" studies. public opinion polls or, in some cases, exhaustive and helpful information about some corner of this debate.

From the start, the White House built a figurative stone wall around the Old Executive Office Building, where more than 500 experts and Congressional aides toiled. Names were secret, they told us. Titles were secret. Jobs were secret. Salaries were secret. For the most part, the blockade was effective in making it more difficult to learn what the White House was up to.

But it was far from impossible.

Between January 25, 1993 and Nov. 1, 1993, for example, the principal health care reporters at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today wrote a total of 575 health care stories, according to a byline search. That does not count hundreds of other stories written by other reporters.

And with each new front-page revelation, top White House health advisers grew increasingly angry, sometimes belligerent, toward individual reporters. Some journalists were sternly lectured or yelled at after their stories appeared, others were insulted over the telephone. One recalls receiving a phone call from a White House aide that went something like this: "There's a mistake in your fourth paragraph, but I'm not going to tell you what it is."

Small papers found it nearly impossible to get their calls returned at all from the so-called "war room" in the bowels of the Old Executive Office Building.

Once the first news stories on the task force began to appear, the health team hid staff telephone directories - presumably so they could not be given to reporters - locked their own working documents away in a reading room and made staff members copy by hand anything they wanted to retain. A few task force members left in disgust because they felt the treatment was childish.

Later, when both The New York Times and The Washington Post led their May 22 editions with different renditions of the first meeting in a round of high-level decision-making sessions led by President Clinton, the White House substantially reduced the number of invitees to future meetings, to the exclusion, some high-level aides said later, of people who really needed to be there.

At the same time, there was a sort of chaotic, "unmanaged competition" among newspapers that, taken together, produced a fairly confusing picture of what was new and what was important on any given day. …

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