Tuesday, December 01, 2009


PROMISES, PROMISES: Friday is still WH 'trash day' SHARON THEIMER APNews

President Barack Obama entered the White House promising a new era of openness in government, but when it comes to bad news, his administration often uses one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook: putting it out when the fewest people are likely to notice.

Former White House environmental adviser Van Jones' resignation over controversial comments hit the trifecta of below-the-radar timing: The White House announced the departure overnight on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, when few journalists were on duty and few Americans awake, much less paying attention to the news.

As with past administrations, Friday looks like a popular day to "take out the trash," as presidential aides on the TV drama "The West Wing" matter-of-factly called it. Along with weekends, holidays and the dark of night, the final stretch of the work week, when many news consumers tune out, is a common time for the government to release news unlikely to benefit the president.

When he took office, Obama pledged in a memo to agency chiefs to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration." But as his predecessors demonstrated, openness is a relative thing. Bad news can be hidden in plain sight.

Among recent examples: On Friday, Nov. 13, the Obama administration announced it would put the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on trial in civilian court in New York. It also disclosed the resignation of the top White House lawyer, who had taken blame for some of the problems surrounding the administration's planned closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The following Friday, Nov. 20, saw the Justice Department quietly notifying a court that it intended to drop manslaughter and weapons charges against a Blackwater Worldwide security guard involved in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. The court filing was sealed from public view and submitted without ceremony, in contrast to the Monday last December when the charges were announced. Then, the Justice Department held a noon news conference and put out a lengthy press release.

On previous Fridays, the White House acknowledged it may not be able to close the Guantanamo prison by January as the president promised, announced Obama was imposing punitive tariffs on car and light-truck tires from China, and disclosed that Obama had waived conflict-of-interest rules for several aides.

It all shows how timing can be used to obscure, if not totally hide, news that detracts from a president's main message.

"It's a time-honored practice where the president's trying to talk about what he wants to talk about and push the subjects that maybe he doesn't want to talk as much about into a time when people aren't paying as much attention," said Dee Dee Myers, press secretary during Clinton's first two years in office and a consultant for "The West Wing" "trash day" episode.

If Friday is a prime day to dump potentially unfavorable news in Washington, 5 p.m. is the witching hour.

The day before Halloween, the Obama administration slipped out news on several ongoing issues, much of it in late afternoon or evening. It included developments on warrantless wiretapping, terror interrogations, the CIA leak case, the reliability of the government's stimulus job creation figures, lobbyists and other visitors to the White House, and the Securities and Exchange Commission's failure to detect disgraced financier Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme for years.

"The president has taken and will continue to take wide-ranging and unprecedented steps to fulfill his campaign promise to give Americans firsthand access to information about their government at whitehouse.gov," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, when asked whether dropping important news late on Fridays, when few news consumers are paying attention, squares with the president's promise of transparency. "The First Amendment to the Constitution ensures that the media is independently responsible for how and when that information is covered."

Earnest noted that Obama is the first president to routinely release visitor logs, and that while the White House did decide to put them out on Fridays, it moved up the disclosure to Wednesday last week rather than do it the day after Thanksgiving. Of the Madoff example, he said the SEC is an independent agency and makes its own decisions about when to release information.

Obama is far from the only president to make major news at the tail end of, or outside, normal business hours.

President George H.W. Bush granted Christmas Eve pardons in 1992 to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and several others in the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Fridays saw many Iran-Contra scandal developments during Ronald Reagan's presidency, including the resignation of White House chief of staff Donald Regan. And Friday was a common day for President George W. Bush's administration to release documents in a scandal over U.S. attorney firings.

The "trash day" episode of "The West Wing" was patterned on a Friday heading into the July 4 holiday weekend when the Clinton White House dumped several stories, Myers said.

In Obama's case, releasing voluminous sets of documents and data late on Fridays, such as White House visitor records and stimulus job figures, isn't "anti-transparency" because they're still making the documents available, she said.

"But yes, do you try to manage the flow of information to some degree at the White House? Of course. You'd be a fool not to," Myers said.

Though the tactic of intentionally dumping some news at off-times persists, it doesn't always work, said Myers and Lanny Davis, a crisis management attorney in Washington and former special counsel to Clinton.

"If it's a really bad story it will have its own legs and you're probably not accomplishing all that much," Davis said. "Sometimes all you're accomplishing is irritating reporters."

Davis points to a famous episode involving President Richard Nixon as an example of weekend timing failing to minimize impact. In an incident known as the "Saturday night massacre," Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired on Nixon's orders on a Saturday night in 1973, hours after Cox held a news conference to defy him. The Justice Department's top two officials resigned rather than be the ones to dismiss Cox.

"It didn't exactly help Nixon to do it on a Saturday night," Davis said. "Only, he gave us all a memorable historic expression. The 'Wednesday night massacre' doesn't sound as good as the 'Saturday night massacre.'"

Crazy about guns BUT at what price?

LATimes editorial 12-01-09

Tragic shootings like those in Washington show the deadly side of our love affair with firepower.

News that an armed fugitive who shot and killed four police officers near Seattle on Sunday was still at large prompted fear, anger, sorrow and something else: The desire to grab a gun. "I can tell you that most people have probably got their weapons loaded right now," a retired computer worker from Parkland, Wash., told The Times. "I think people should carry their guns and be ready," a local taxi driver told National Public Radio.

It's a typical American response to an all-too-typical American incident of gun violence. It is also a striking example of the disconnect between our desire to feel safe and our insistence on loose gun laws that make us less so. The murdered officers were armed, well trained in the use of their weapons and wearing bulletproof vests. It didn't save them.

Americans seem hard-wired to love guns; our frontier history and our bloody split from the British crown have made gun ownership both a cultural imperative and a constitutionally enshrined right. That's not going to change any time soon, and polls show that's OK with increasing numbers of Americans. But we pay a steep price for our fascination with firepower.

Had Sunday's victims been, say, Mounties, it wouldn't necessarily have sent Canadians scrambling for the gun racks. But then, such killings are far less common in Canada. According to the FBI, the U.S. homicide rate in 2008 was 5.4 for every 100,000 people; 67% of those killings were committed with guns. In Canada, the homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000, with 33% of the killings committed with guns. Notice a pattern? Canada has stricter guns laws than the United States, requiring owners to pass a safety course and get a license before buying a gun, rather like drivers must do here. The need for a driver's license seems obvious to most Americans -- after all, a car with an untrained driver behind the wheel can be deadly.

Time will tell how the suspected shooter in Parkland got his weapon. If he stole it or acquired it from an accomplice, there are few gun laws that could have prevented the tragedy short of a blanket ban on handguns, and the Supreme Court last year ruled that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban was unconstitutional. Yet regardless of the circumstances in Parkland, it is simple for criminals and the mentally unstable to acquire guns in this country. In most states (though not, thankfully, California) they need only go to a gun show and buy from a reseller, because dealers in second-hand firearms usually aren't required to perform a federal background check.

That "gun-show loophole" should have been closed years ago because it would protect the public while doing nothing to restrict law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms, but the gun lobby has successfully resisted every attempt at reform. Americans could stand to be less gun-crazy and more willing to stop crazy people from getting guns.