Worth Discussing

New White House Website Conceals More Than It Tells

by John J. Pitney | The New Majority | May 29, 2009
Assets

On January 20, the Obama White House launched its blog with this proclamation: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise.” 


So far, the president’s website is falling short.


Its slides and videos are quite pretty, but if you are seeking hard information, it is not easy to use.  Suppose, for instance, that you want to review the president’s speeches. Slide your cursor over the navigation bar and stop at “The Briefing Room.”  A dropdown menu includes a link for “Speeches.” Click it, and you will find exactly four items:  his inaugural address, English and Spanish versions of his address to Congress, and his February 27 remarks on Iraq.  To access his other speeches, you must go to the Briefing Room links on the right side of the page and click “Official Statements.”  Here you will find dozens of pages, each divided into two sections:  “Official Statements” and “Official Remarks.”  They are in a disjointed chronological order:  on each page, the “statements” and “remarks” span different time periods. 


This material is also available among the press releases, but the site does not allow for browsing releases by month or topic.  To locate a particular document, you must either do a word search or click through dozens of pages.


When you use the site, remember that the administration is carving its content in electrons, not stone.  ChangeTracker keeps watch on revisions of the White House website, and some of its findings have been noteworthy. The “Civil Rights” page of the “Issues” section originally said that the president supported repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Then, as ChangeTracker discovered, it substituted softer language: “He supports changing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in a sensible way that strengthens our armed forces and our national security.”  Protests from liberals forced the White House to change the language again: “He supports repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in a sensible way that strengthens our armed forces and national security.”


Here’s the most important problem:  the Obama White House definition of “transparency” does not include “completeness.”  Although the website includes transcripts of interviews with Jay Leno and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it omits a number of others, such as:



  • The May 23 C-SPAN interview in which the president told Steve Scully that “we’re out of money.”

  • The March 22 “60 Minutes” interview in which his laughter about economic turmoil led Steve Kroft to ask him if he were “punch drunk.”

  • The February 3 CNN interview in which he admitted to Anderson Cooper that he had “screwed up” on Tom Daschle’s nomination to be HHS secretary.

  • Interviews with liberal talk-show host Ed Schultz and Univision Radio’s Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo.


Is there a pattern here?  The Scully, Kroft and Cooper interviews all contained material that could be slightly embarrassing to the president.  According to The Politico, the Schultz and Piolin interviews were part of broad White House strategy to communicate directly to sympathetic audiences while bypassing critics and the mainstream media.


Of course, the White House has hardly “hidden” this material, since a diligent researcher can find it elsewhere.  The point is that administration rhetoric would lead ordinary citizens to regard the website as a full record of the president’s positions and public utterances.  It isn’t.  Whitehouse.gov promises sunshine and delivers shadows.


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