Jewish World Review August 10, 2009 / 20 Menachem-Av 5769
The empty words of a journalist turned flack
By Byron York
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Linda Douglass, the former CBS and ABC News correspondent who joined the Obama presidential campaign and later the administration, has emerged as the point person in the White House push back against “disinformation” regarding national health care.
She’s one of several former journalists who are part of Team Obama, and her story, in particular, illustrates the difficulties that politically connected Democratic journalists can face both inside and outside the government. (Although a few Republican reporters have joined GOP administrations, this is mostly a Democratic problem, given the left-leaning sympathies of most journalists.)
As a reporter, how does one keep from rooting for the home team? And as a government official, how does one flack for the boss while ignoring the questions any journalist should ask?
This week Douglass undertook to debunk a video going around the Internet showing Barack Obama, before he became president, endorsing a single-payer national health care system. “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan,” Obama said at a conference in 2003, as he was beginning a run for the U.S. Senate. “That’s what I’d like to see.”
A viewer might reasonably conclude that, at least in 2003, Barack Obama was a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan. Not true, said Douglass. In a video posted on the White House Web site, she explained that there was a lot of “disinformation” going around these days about health care reform. Opponents of reform have been “taking sentences and phrases out of context” to create a “false impression.”
“There are people out there with a computer and a lot of free time, and they take a phrase here and there — they simply cherry-pick and put it together,” Douglass said, “and make it sound like he’s saying something that he didn’t really say.”
A few years ago, Linda Douglass the journalist might have asked just how Obama’s 2003 declaration of support for single-payer health care was taken out of context. Now, Douglass the White House spokeswoman didn’t even address the question.
Instead, she played a clip of Obama as president, at an AARP forum in July, pledging that people who like their current insurance will be allowed to keep it.
A few years ago, Linda Douglass the journalist might have asked what caused the president to change his mind — and why the American people should take seriously what he says now. But Douglass the White House spokeswoman had nothing to say about that. That’s the problem of the journalist-turned-spokesperson.
Douglass experienced the Democratic journalist’s dilemma from the other side during the Clinton years, when she and her husband, lawyer and sometime Democratic fundraiser John Phillips, were close to members of the president’s inner circle. They had been longtime friends of Mickey Kantor, a key figure in Bill Clinton’s political world, and during the 1992 campaign, Kantor introduced them to Bruce Lindsey, Harold Ickes and others on the Clinton team.
Douglass and Phillips also became close with Webb Hubbell, the Justice Department official who stole from his old law firm and cheated on his taxes. Douglass and Phillips dined and socialized with Hubbell and his wife, Suzy, and the couples even took a trip to the Greek islands together.
They remained close after Hubbell got in trouble. Phillips helped arrange for Hubbell to make some easy money during a period when Hubbell was suspected of withholding information from Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr. (A foundation Phillips was connected to agreed to pay Hubbell $45,000 to write an article on public service.)
The friendship ended badly when the full extent of Hubbell’s corruption became impossible to deny. Douglass and Phillips were never suspected of any wrongdoing, and Douglass said she informed her bosses and recused herself when it came to covering Hubbell and Kantor. But the episode revealed the complexities that can arise when top journalists are close to top government officials.
Now, Douglass is experiencing the problems of life on the other side of the divide. She’s free to be partisan — no recusals necessary — but she’s squandering the credibility she built earlier in her career. You can be the most polished communicator in the world, but you can’t make a convincing argument if you have nothing to say.
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