Over the weekend, I linked to an intriguing look from the New York Times inside the White House spin on the ObamaCare rollout, which spread nothing but sunshine and optimism to Democrats on Capitol Hill and especially to the media. The article posits that Barack Obama and his health-care team were blindsided by the massive failures this month. However, in the second half of the article, the Times’ Michael Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg noted that the project’s defects were such an “open secret” in the industry that even the man who built Obama’s 2008 campaign online systems wanted nothing to do with it:
But among technology experts, the federal government’s poor performance in developing Web sites was an open secret.
Clay Johnson, a founder of Blue State Digital, the company that ultimately developed Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign Web site, turned down a chance to work on HealthCare.gov last year, when he spent six months as a Presidential Innovation Fellow.
“It was a project I wanted to steer clear of,” he said.
So why didn’t the media pick up on this? Matt Lewis had a great article on Friday at The Week defending progressive critics of the ObamaCare rollout for exhibiting intellectual honesty, responding to a controversy raised by Salon’s Joan Walsh scolding Ezra Klein and Ryan Lizza for acknowledging reality:
This raises the question about the proper role of journalists who have a political philosophy. You might say, “Well if you’re just going to write what everyone else writes, why should a media outlet that wants to advance progressive or conservative ideas pay you?”
Philosophical journalists play an important role in terms of diversity. But the benefit is mostly baked in to the cake. In other words, their value is in their existence, not in their output. I am a temperamentally conservative person who has a conservative disposition. And I’m willing to concede that that worldview will naturally influence the things I choose to write about (selection bias), as well as the way I cover stories. That, in a nutshell, is the benefit for conservatives.
My guess is that Klein and Lizza would generally agree. If you’re looking for a hack or a cheerleader, you might want to look somewhere else. Like maybe Salon.
Where does one go to get some objective reporting on public policy? One unmentioned aspect of the “sticker shock” and “exchange collapse” stories, which the media now reports well, is that these problems were readily apparent before October 1, too — as the NYT admits in the second half of its Friday article. In my column today for The Week, I argue that this remarkable incuriosity about a massive public-works project that was a key issue in the 2012 election and the 2013 budget fight suggests that cheerleading takes place at many other venues other than Salon:
Shear and Stolberg also noted that the tech firms that did get involved in the project tried to warn HHS and the White House that they were heading into a disaster. “Senior department officials” at HHS “predicted serious trouble and advised delaying the rollout,” they report.
CBS also reported on Thursday that the White House delayed key instructions for the development of the system during the summer of 2012 until after the election, which set the contractors back months in getting the code written. Between the 2010 passage of the ACA and August 31, 2012, HHS issued 109 regulations and guidances, but the flow mysteriously stopped between then and late November. No one bothered to notice this until after the collapse.
These are just a few examples of facts that might have been helpful to know earlier this year, or perhaps late last year before the election. Instead, the “open secret” of a disastrous rollout in the tech industry never got the attention of the media, nor did the political machinations or the fact that even the president’s own Innovation Fellow wanted nothing to do with the project.
After all, this wasn’t an obscure, tertiary bureaucratic effort; the ACA is the central mission of Obama’s presidency, and it “fundamentally transformed” one-sixth of the American economy. Where were the objective journalists keeping track of its progress? Why didn’t we hear about the rising skepticism within the industry on which Obama has now called for his “tech surge” rescue? Did none of these news reporters bother to develop leads within the industry and within CMS and HHS to inform people as to the real progress of the project?
Maybe the media didn’t dig into these “open secrets” because, like Democrats, the media was satisfied with just hearing the sunny spin from the White House. It’s not as if this was entirely a secret; the Weekly Standard reported in July that the rollout would be a disaster on the security end, which got a little media attention that faded with White House reassurances that all was well. Democrats aren’t the only ones suffering a credibility crisis. As Ron Fournier notes, though, Democrats are well aware of their own credibility meltdown … now:
“Dem Party is F****d.” That was the subject line of an email sent to me Sunday by a senior Democratic consultant with strong ties to the White House and Capitol Hill. The body of the email contained a link to thisLos Angeles Times story about Obamacare “sticker shock” …
The Democratic consultant said none of this is news to him, but he wonders why Obama wasn’t honest with Americans. He predicted surprise and outrage over higher costs and lesser coverage. “We will own this problem forever,” the Democrat wrote.
Only if the media refrains from playing cheerleader in the future.