Tuned In

ABC Moves to White House for Health-Care-a-Thon

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I spent a good part of the first half of the week working on a column for the print TIME, which, because some country can’t figure out how to properly hold/rig an election, ended up being held for lack-of-space reasons. Oh, death of print—why can’t you come sooner! 

Part of the column dealt with ABC News’ plan next Wednesday to essentially devote its entire news day, from Good Morning America through Nightline, to President Obama’s health-care plan. The centerpiece of the coverage will be a primetime townhall with the President, moderated by Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson; World News Tonight will also be anchored from the White House. 

I do hope they Bo sit behind the anchor desk! Because he is a good doggie! Yes he is! Oh, yes he is!

The Republican National Committee issued a complaint that the arrangement amounts to free advertising for Obama: “In the absence of opposition, I am concerned this event will become a glorified infomercial to promote the Democrat agenda. If that is the case, this primetime infomercial should be paid for out of the DNC coffers.”

I’m going to wait and see how the actual coverage looks, but I don’t think the move is biased on the face of it, for a few reasons.

(1) This is at least as much a favor to ABC, one of whose major motives must be ratings, given the performance of NBC’s Inside the White House special.

[Update: In the comments, lostepic makes a good point—”As for ABC holding the special, I would appreciate it if other news organizations, all MSNBC, NBC, CBS, FOXNEWS, CNN, etc…, were able to air at least the town hall special.” I agree, in the civic sense—the wider the discussion, the better. On the other hand, the last time Obama held a primetime press conference and requested time from all the broadcast networks, the result was grumbling that the President was costing them money and going on TV too much. Even with commercial time, a town hall on all networks would become a commodity and would likely mean lower ratings for any individual network. The paradox, I guess, is that when Obama agrees to go on one network, it’s an exclusive; when available to all of them, it becomes an imposition.]

(2) This isn’t an election, where America is choosing between two candidates. We don’t have two presidents offering competing agendas. And regardless the merits of the RNC’s argument that “President Obama does not hold a monopoly on health care reform ideas,” the reality is that his party holds the White House and effective control of Congress. The political debate right now is about the Obama/Dem plans—yea, nay, or modify—and it isn’t ABC’s obligation to pretend the balance of power is otherwise. 

(3) The test of the news special will be how well and skeptically ABC can examine Obama’s proposals, hold them to questioning and challenge them with alternatives and critiques. Given the arrangement with the White House and the criticism, the onus will be on them to be especially tough. (Which is probably the major goal of the RNC’s complaint—and good for the GOP for applying the pressure; that’s their job.) Given that Charles Gibson co-moderated what was widely regarded, or castigated, as the toughest Presidential debate on Obama, I don’t see why so many people would assume he would suddenly roll over. 

In any case, I’ll judge after I watch. I’m skeptical that this draws as many eyeballs as Brian Williams eating a hamburger with POTUS. But maybe they’ll get lucky and the President will kill something again.