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.
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’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 it owns 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.'”
Associated Press writers Barry Schweid, Matt Apuzzo and Will Lester contributed to this report.