CHARLOTTE GRIMES: I’m Charlotte Grimes; I’m the Knight Chair in Political Reporting, and I’m lucky enough to be administrator of Toner Program for Excellence in Political Reporting. I’m delighted to welcome you here tonight to this celebration of the kind of journalism that makes democracy possible, and for this as Robin Toner, a superb political reporter and an outstanding alumna of both Newhouse and Maxwell schools.
Before we go into the program, we have some special guests here; please wait until I introduce them all, and then join me in thanking them with a round of applause.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor and her husband;
Mike Wasylenko, the interim dean of the Maxwell School;
Lorainne Branham, dean of the Newhouse School;
And Adam Clymer, a generous supporter of Toner Program, a colleague and friend of Robin, and one of judges for the prize.
We also have with us Robin’s husband Peter and children, Nora and Jake; we’ll hear something from all of them very shortly.
Please help welcome them to this event, thank you very much.
(I don’t know if you can see me, but I can see you. The podium is tall and I’m so short.)
If you don’t know who Robin Toner was, your education is sadly lacking in many ways. We do our best at the Newhouse School and I hope at the Maxwell School to remedy that lack. Robin Toner set very high standards for political reporting, she was the first woman to become a national political correspondent for The New York Times. Those of you who are under the age of 30 have no idea what an accomplishment that was; those of us older than that appreciate it more than we can tell you. She was so good at that work that even politicians acknowledged her extraordinary talent. Senator Edward Kennedy called her “a reporter’s reporter,” those of us in journalism know that’s the highest compliment you can ever get — sorry editors.
To honor the life and the work of Robin, and to encourage the kind of work she did, her family, her friends, classmates, and Syracuse University have created the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting.
In addition to friends, generous supporters include Chaplain, Adam Clymer, the board of trustees, and the Newhouse family.
We’re very grateful for all of that support. With it we hope to raise a $1 million endowment to sustain the program in the future, and every year we will award a prize for excellence in political reporting, which as Peter Gosselin said, will become the Pulitzer Prize of political reporting, the equivalent of that. And we will have a discussion called the Toner Symposium about the issues, challenges, and opportunities for American political reporting and American politics.
To present the first Toner Prize, we’ll ask for some help from some special people with us, Nora and Jacob. If they will come up here with us, and I’ll ask the recipients to come join us — Craig, Marcus, Sebastian, will you please come up here?
JAKE GOSSELIN: The judges were very impressed with the quality of 103 entries in the contest. Only one winner of the top prize, but judges also wanted to recognize other outstanding political reporting. Three journalists are awarded with honorable mentions for their work.
One of these three journalists with honorable mentions is Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker. Unfortunately he couldn’t be with us. Judges praised his narrative, “As The World Burns,” for telling the important story it told of climate change legislation.
With us tonight are two other recipients with honorable mentions: Sebastian Jones and Marcus Stern, reporters for the online news organization, ProPublica. Their stories showed the way money influences politics and the electoral process, such as local fundraisers at the Super Bowl and a Bruce Springsteen concert. Congratulations to both of them.
NORA GOSSELIN: The Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting is meant to keep alive the flame of quality, fact-based political journalism that was the hallmark of my mother’s career. This is the first time the prize will be awarded. The national contest drew 103 entries from large news organizations like The New York Times and PBS; and some small ones, the Fairmount West Virginia Times.
The winner is Craig Harris, of the Arizona Republic. Mr. Harris for an eight-part series of broken and expensive pension plan. Because of his series, which cost taxpayers $1.4 billion this year, state lawmakers and mayors began change to the pension system and to correct the abuses. My Mom would be proud of this journalism.
As winner of the prize, Mr. Harris receives $5,000 and a crystal flame. Congratulations Mr. Harris.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Thank you Nora and Jacob, we’ll ask our award winner if they’d like to say a few words before move onto program.
CRAIG HARRIS: Thank you very much; I am so honored to be here. (To Nora and Jacob) And thank you very much, that was so kind. One thing that I was so impressed by reading about your mom is the amazing tenacity she had for action. Not only a wonderful writer … I was so impressed over her career, and her obituary. They said they could only find at the most a half dozen of corrections. That is just astounding, for her level of reporting; I’m so honored to be a part of that.
I’d just like to say a few other thank yous. I’d like to thank God, who gave me the ability to write; I’d also like to thank my beautiful wife, Dr. Tamer, who couldn’t be here tonight because she’s teaching tomorrow at Arizona University; my kids, who like you, have heard me say, “I’ll only be five more minutes and I’ll be home,” and I’m not home. Last I’d like to thank my editors at the Republic, especially Pat Flannery and Nicole Carol who allowed me to do this, and for all lawyers fees they paid for us to fight to get a lot of documents.
Thank you for generosity, and just how warm this university has been to someone who is a stranger from the desert, and grew up in a far away place like Oregon. Thank you so much for your hospitality, I appreciate this so much, thank you.
MARCUS STERN: Congratulations again, Craig; great work and a great honor. And these two kids who made the presentation, what about their poise? I mean, are they incredible? What’s amazing is, your mom would be so proud to watch you two, you’ll be doing this year after this and your hair is gray and hair is wrinkled. It’s going to be wonderful.
This is terrific honor for us — your mom, by the way, in addition to being a great journalist, was something not many journalists are — she was a tremendous person. She was such a wonderful warm person. I didn’t know her well, she was on a different tier than I was, at The New York Times, but she was always accommodating, always welcoming. She was just a very, very nice human being.
SEBASTIAN JONES: I echo what Mark said, it’s a real honor to accept this award.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: To start our conversation about political reporting, which is going to be with the prize; we’re going to continue if we raise that $1 million — hint hint — we have with us former Newhouse dean and professor, my colleague just down the hall, David Rubin, host of “Ivory Tower Half Hour.” How about that for a rhyming name? A public affairs show here, who will present our Toner Lecture and moderate the conversation.
DAVID RUBIN: Hi everybody, thank you for coming. Nora and Jake, you are so good at this, I expect in four to five years — I want you to do what I’m doing tonight … So pay attention, learn from my mistakes, then you can do it better.
We are fortunate tonight to have one of the country’s leading journalists on the subject of health care, Marilyn Serafini. She has won awards for coverage of the healthcare proposals of the 2008 presidential candidates, and also for an article about President Bush’s proposal to give money to states to encourage marriage and to discourage divorce. She is, as you’ve heard, the inaugural Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She writes the website Kaiser Health News, which supplements lack of health care coverage in a beleaguered mass media these days — financially beleaguered media. If you want to read what she writes, you can see it at Kaiser Family Foundation’s website. Google KHN, remember KHN and that will get you there and you can read her work.
She’s been a health care and welfare reporter for the National Journal since 1995. She left the National Journal in order to take position at Kaiser Health News and will be there until the end of the year. She’s covered Congress since 1985; she’s a graduate of the University of Maryland, and got her masters from American University in journalism and public affairs.
She was there at the beginning — that is, she covered the first big debate over reforming health care. I won’t include the creation of Medicare, but she covered the debate at beginning of the Clinton administration, the first wave in which Hillary Clinton was in charge. Those of you who know history know that that was a failure, and was not attempted again until the Obama administration, so covering health care reform under Obama was round two for her with the subject, which has made her an expert.
Reforming our health care system, how we deliver and pay for health care, is the most contentious, political, social, economic stories the last few years, and believe me, it’s not over.
It had great impact on the 2010 election, it’s going to affect the 2012 election, as the Republican and members of the Tea Party attempt to defund the bill — which was passed into law — and start over, the effort will be part of 2012 election.
This bill spawned Constitutional challenges under the commerce clause, which guaranteed us that the Supreme Court will have the last word on the subject and decide whether the federal mandate for everyone in this room purchase health care, which is a key tenant of this bill. If it goes away, if it is unconstitutional, it will take serious thinking to think how we will salvage this bill.
Whenever a story such as this one comes along, the way in which the media framed this story, what they choose to cover, whom they anoint the experts that they will interview, how much detail they provide, how willing they are to challenge what politicians say, other experts say, is crucial to the public perception of what’s going on. In short, a story like this, the media becomes part of the story.
If you were paying attention, you will recall how much confusion and misinformation surrounded such terms on the debate about death panels — deciding for people my age and who will live and die; rationing of health care — we would have system will not get access to care; bending the cost curve with the bill, that is that the bill would reduce the end costs; court reform, if we simply limit ability by people injured by doctors and practice of medicine, it would cap the awards, and the insurance premiums would drop and everything would be fine. Some subjects off the top of my head that dominated debate, don’t have answers or truth, most of what I heard was probably not the truth.
So our focus tonight, given that this is the Newhouse School, is not specifically on health care reform, but whether the performance of media in covering the health care debate, which means, Marilyn — I’m going to start by asking you to critique yourself and how you covered debate, and critique not only yourself but your colleagues and all those who you consulted as sources.
And just one ground rule, for the sake of making this efficient: The bill is now commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” but we know it’s a loaded word used pejoratively. But it is easier than the actual name of the bill, which my guess is, no one else outside except the chancellor may know name of the bill: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or the acronym PPACA, which clunky as it gets … So let’s just call it the act, or Obamacare, or anything short.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I don’t think you’d ever hear me call it Obamacare, but we all know what you mean.
DAVID RUBIN: Let’s start broad overall — how would you assess the quality of the job of you and colleagues? How good did you do in informing the American public?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Very difficult bill and debate to cover; a lot has changed in politics since the first round of health care to today’s round. Politics has really changed; it has become an overarching presence through the debate, which made it difficult for the press in general to write about policy issues that were most important.
Because we had people talking about death panels — when Sarah Palin brought it up, the debate stopped. We stopped talking about how were going to bring costs down, expand coverage for the uninsured; we stopped talking about issues people really cared about. It was political hammering back and forth about what death panels are. Frankly, most people have no idea what she was talking about, but sounded so awful, that it consumed the debate.
One issue, aside from the death panels, that took up a lot of time and discussion was the public health plan. In 2014 everyone — most people — will be required to purchase health insurance. As part of that, each state is supposed to have insurance exchange; individual and small businesses can purchase insurance. The exchange was intended to provide a menu of insurance plans from which to choose, and then we come to debate whether there will be a public plan option to choose from.
This was not supposed to be an issue, or take up a lot of attention. Democrats were prepared on issues; they didn’t think it was that important, but such a political back and forth that ensued over this. It took up months of debate time that should have been focused on the more important issues of reaching goals of health reform. And the most important to the public was reducing cost. Issues like that, politics took away from that.
DAVID RUBIN: If you say Democrats were willing to concede on the public option from beginning, why did some Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi, continue to make it an issue, that you as a journalist that you felt you needed to continue to cover? Why did they make it an issue if they were prepared to concede it from beginning?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It started as a negotiation point; in the end, Democrats, who thought they could not give in on issue politically, but tanked over time. Again the politics took over, they felt they couldn’t go there.
DAVID RUBIN: I’m curious, as a journalist, did you write a story early on, in which you said ‘Everyone knows the Democrats are going to give this issue up, the public option”? When they’re continuing to debate it anyway?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I did say that; I did write that in many stories, but frankly, I tried to steer away from stories that were just about the public option. It was so consuming. I tried my very hardest to move ahead and to look proposals that were coming down the road. I kept thinking this issue, this debate is going to end any moment, and it kept going on and on and on.
DAVID RUBIN: The issue about the death panel, I’d like to get your take on why that took over the life of this. I remember hearing when Sarah Palin said it — the word, and I saw my mother die, and there are many people in this room who have seen people die, there is an American way of death — it is a combo of doctors and family members getting together and deciding when to go to hospices, when it’s over. These things happen, anyone been through it knows that this happens. When I heard her say “death panel,” somehow, everyone in America lies in a bed until they die of natural causes, isn’t the way the world works. So I thought, “Everyone knows that, they’ll ignore that.” And yet they didn’t. How did it happen that people were so concerned of this?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It originated with a provision in health legislation; when the House had the bill and was working on it, really meant to give physicians to participate in Medicare, to give them some encouragement and fin reimbursement to encourage their patient to have living wills, to sign advanced directives, to give their instructions so wishes could be followed — exactly, prepare for the end. A conservative strategist was telling me this the other day, he thought Sarah Palin had no idea what those provisions were, and that she, somehow, blindly stumbled on this. It sounded great for those who did not like the law, didn’t like the legislation, so she latched on and used it as a political argument. But at the same time, this person said, she may not have understood but it did resonate politically, and now, this person believes — this is a conservative strategist — she believes that there was some truth in bringing up the issue of rationing care.
DAVID RUBIN: To get back to that rationing care — how did you write about health care rations, how did you combat ignorance in this?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I didn’t write much about it at all. I tried very hard to stay away from issues that I thought were solely political, and focus attentions more on other policies. I thought that eventually again, just like public option, that the debate had to wind down. I had to get to broader issues — what was in pieces of leg that could potentially reduce costs and improve quality?
DAVID RUBIN: Did you see many of your colleagues, who — unlike you, you didn’t want to write about side issues, but others were because they were keeping them afloat — did you witness that?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely.
DAVID RUBIN: What did you say to them?
MARILYN SERAFINI: What did I say to them? I’m in a different position, at time I was writing for National Journal; I was not tied to the daily news. It’s a real luxury in journalism these days, to not to have to write about every little political peak that each of the political parties make. I was able to take this into the broader perspective, and to write about the policy as it relates to politics, politics as it relates to policy. But a lot of my colleagues, they really were bound to write the daily news. If all that’s being talked about that day is a comment or a town hall meeting where people are standing up and screaming about death panels, I don’t blame them for writing that story. Because it does have a place in our writing. However, if that’s all people are writing, that’s where you get into trouble.
DAVID RUBIN: They were then captive of these politicians on both side of this debate.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I think that’s exactly right.
DAVID RUBIN: Is there no way out of that captivity? Because it had a very — it had a very veiled effect?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely it did. I think that the goal should be to write about some of it, to keep it in mind, but to really write about the broader picture, and where is this taking us, and perhaps write about what are we not hearing. I think it’s the responsibility of journalists to write about what we should be writing about, not necessarily what is being said. And it takes a lot to do that; editors have to be convinced, to maybe the comment about death panels, that it could be included on a blog or put up on the website. But there’s a real lack of time at this moment for journalists; there’s a lack of resources, so it’s difficult. Newsrooms are shrinking, and in shrinking newsroom, there are fewer and fewer journalists who have time to write beyond the news of that day, and it’s a problem.
DAVID RUBIN: Did you find that colleagues were frustrated in the way that they were captivated in fringe element of debate?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, very frustrated.
DAVID RUBIN: You mentioned rationing; do you want to address how that was hijacked as an issue?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Again, it falls in line with the death panels; rationing is a political issue. Anybody who tells you there’s no rationing in the health care system already, they’re wrong. There’s rationing, there has to be; we as nation spend more than most other nations do on health care, we as individuals spend more on health care than many other nations. But there is a finite amount of money; for millions of people who are uninsured, they face rationed care every day. A lot of people would use argument, well, they could walk to an emergency room to get whatever care they need, but that’s not really true. You can’t do that because what happens is, when people who come in to the emergency room, yes, there are laws that the ER’s to see patients until they are stable enough to be released, but what happens then is that the hospital charges these people who don’t have the money, a lot of money. What happens when they can’t pay? They’re sometimes — they take them to court, they garnish wages, take their homes, these things happen. For anyone to argue that we don’t already have a system of rationed care is wrong.
DAVID RUBIN: So that entire debate was uninformed, and took us in the wrong direction?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I believe so.
DAVID RUBIN: Correct if I’m wrong, but I heard it on NPR — when Canada first enacted its system of health, which is a more of, I guess, socialized or public option; that the whole bill was nine pages long.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I don’t know about that.
DAVID RUBIN: When Canada first enacted its health care bill, which I think is more socialized than health care and public option, the whole thing that’s encompassed in the bill is nine pages. Nine pages long. Which, of course, anyone can read that in a few minutes. And this bill, was 2,000 pages, and I remember thinking, “You know, 2,000 page bill, 1 — is this necessary; 2 — who can read it, understand it, and is this not immediately going to make it impossible for a you as a journalist to cover, and for you as a journalist to explain to the American people? Is there truth to that view?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, there are many questions in that question. First of all, in the polling that’s out there right now, the public has no idea what’s in the bill. They might have heard about one provision, or two provisions, and if they are lucky, they understand them correctly. But because rhetoric is being thrown back and forth, it’s virtually impossible for the average American citizen to understand what is in that bill. That’s just the public, then you get to journalists and, to the journalists, it’s very difficult. First of all, even if we understood everything all in it, there’s not enough time in the day given the number of journalists we have to write about what’s in the law, it’s virtually impossible. Even if we had time, it is very lengthy. I learn something new every single day about what is in that law. And I’m doing this every day.
DAVID RUBIN: Do you have it? The bill?
MARILYN SERAFINI: The actual? No. It’s on my favorites on my computer; I have all the links, summaries — I do have the actual law itself electronically.
DAVID RUBIN: Electronically?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Oh yeah.
DAVID RUBIN: I don’t mean to embarrass you with this question, but how much of this bill have you actually read?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I couldn’t even answer that question, because I never sat down and read it from beginning to end. Mostly I am looking for certain provisions, but I can say I’ve been through quite a bit of it.
DAVID RUBIN: One of the attacks on the bill was that the people voting on it hadn’t read it themselves. So Republicans attacking Democrats by saying, “You don’t know what you’re voting on, who can read a 2,000-page bill?” Don’t you think that also has some public relations resonance with the American people?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, they’re right, who could sit and read that entire piece of legislation; it’s virtually impossible, I absolutely give the Republicans that. It’s not just the Republicans, there were many Democrats who were concerned about voting for a piece of leg when don’t know what’s in it. And by the way, there are many Republicans who are concerned about voting to repeal the health care law, when Republicans aren’t putting forward a replacement. So there’s some uncertainly on that front as well. So it’s not, in this case, it’s not just one party being upset with another party, although that’s a big chunk of it. The concern on both sides of the aisles is that there’s not a lot of information out there.
DAVID RUBIN: How did the bill get to be 2,000 pages?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It gets to be a 2,000-page bill when you have a lot of stakeholders. In the early ’90s, when we had Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton trying to manage and pass health care reform law in the first place, one of the criticisms of that process was that the Clintons did not partner with Congress to create the law. And that they also did not partner with various stakeholders, like physicians, insurers, the pharmaceutical industry, to really bring everyone to the table to create law. In my opinion, that was the single biggest factor why that law, that legislation, failed.
So President Obama comes into office, everyone who advises him tells him what not to do, and what not to do is what Hillary Clinton did. So the first thing he does was get stakeholders at the table. When you start sitting stakeholders at same table…
DAVID RUBIN: By stakeholders you mean the insurance companies, the doctors, the nurses, the hospital people…
MARILYN SERAFINI: The various sectors of the industry, for the most part, everyone wants something. So you had a handful of deals that had to be made, and with all the deals came greater complications.
DAVID RUBIN: And that gave birth to a 2,000-page bill.
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely.
DAVID RUBIN: Not just the stakeholders — you had members of Congress who felt strongly they had to have this, they had to have that. You have to give credit where credit is due. This was a very difficult task, and for President Obama to actually put together and pass anything, was a pretty significant accomplishment. I’m not sure if anybody could have done it in any less than 2,000 pages.
So you’re a journalist, and this 2,000-page bill electronically hits your desk, this is going to be what you have to cover. Did your heart sink? How did you attack it? What did you do?
MARILYN SERAFINI: First thing you do is get a timeline, you get from Kaiser Family Foundation or you get it from the Commonwealth Fund, there are various groups putting out timelines for when the various components kick in. I think that was the single most important thing I did was, I printed out and I made this giant timeline of the bill. In that way, I was able to look forward to what provisions had been coming down the road — when certain provisions would be implemented, when certain rules were coming out. That helped me to look forward as opposed to, again, following political rhetoric and getting stuck in what I think is a rut. The most important thing is looking forward to what is about to come, and talking to stakeholders who these provisions are very important to.
It could be the consumer, it could young people, it could be senior citizens who all of a sudden are getting a discount on their prescription drugs. If I can take the timeline, and looking forward as a starting point, I can try to talk to the people or sectors of industry who will be affected and then I can try to understand what challenges for them will be moving forward. That’s how I choose my stories.
DAVID RUBIN: So you organized it by trying to get a timeline of each provision implemented from 2010 to 2014; that was your organizing principle, and that works for you to get a sense of what was in the bill. Who turned out to be your best sources when you really needed to go to people and say, “I’m having trouble understanding this?”
MARILYN SERAFINI: Pollsters.
DAVID RUBIN: Pollsters?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Yes, pollsters, it’s very true. Because for me, I write about the policies and the politics, I’ve been looking forward to the midterm elections, and the effect health care had on those elections, and vice versa, and now looking toward 2012 and how health care is going to play into the 2012 election, and so much of this legislature of its success, failure rides on public option. Whether people are buying it, feeling positively or negatively, that is what is going to drive whether this thing is a success or failure. I rely quite a bit on pollsters, and strategists on one side or another or neutral to talk about how the public is perceiving this.
DAVID RUBIN: I would have not thought that was the answer you were going to give me. I thought there were certain policy wonks in the Obama administration, who were briefed in health care, working 18-hour days in offices with no windows, you could call them and they would say, “Paragraph 13, section 12, that’s what that means.”
MARILYN SERAFINI: This is a very interesting point. I do know some of the people working in the Obama administration. The problem is the administration has been closed when it comes to talking to press. It’s a great problem for us working journalists in Washington. People who I’ve been talking to for years, they take a job in administration, in the health department, and all of a sudden it’s “Sorry, I can’t talk to you anymore.” They were my sources for years, some people occasionally talking to them, but they were very nervous because people got the word from the administration to lay low on this issue.
DAVID RUBIN: This is amazing, I remember within the first four days of Obama administration, the executive order saying it was the most transparent administration ever, and the Freedom of Information Act and how agency would have offices, that was the case. I remember telling my students, this is new era of transparency in Washington. Now you’re telling me it’s just the opposite.
MARILYN SERAFINI: At least when it comes to health care. From what I understand from political reporters at the National Journal, around town, it’s been very, very difficult to get info out of this White House and federal agencies. You think about Freedom of Information, that’s a different process. I’m talking about Press Secretary, and definitely beyond that. With interviewing other people, that’s what’s been so different.
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for health and human services, she has spoken very little to the press. I have to say that in the past month or so, she has started to talk more to the press. I don’t know whether we have reached a turning point, because maybe now, they see the need to start selling this, and explaining to people more what’s in the law if they’re going to win the public relations war. I’m holding my breath, I’m waiting to see if this is a turning point. Up until now, things have not gone well in the communications front.
DAVID RUBIN: Do you have any theory on why the Obama administration closed itself off to the press?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Health care was such, honestly, I follow health care, I believe on this issue that the thinking was that Republicans were hammering Democrats so hard on issue, that if they just laid low for a little while and let some of new benefits take hold, people would like it so much start that it would start to be seen in positive light.
DAVID RUBIN: Willing to lose the public relations war under the assumption that the American public will see how good the bill is, and win that way.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I believe that, and have been told by some people that has been the strategy.
DAVID RUBIN: That didn’t work out so well.
MARILYN SERAFINI: Not so far.
DAVID RUBIN: 2012 — I agree with you this is going to be a big issue in 2012. Do you think based on what you’ve seen with Kathleen Sebelius that the administration will deal differently with the press in talking about health care as we get closer to this election?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Things are changing a little bit, waiting to see how much they change. As provisions start to take hold; I can only believe that we’re going to start hearing more about them. We were supposed to hear a lot from the industry as well. For instance, I’ve been focusing a lot on seniors, because they were such an important voting block in midterm election. Seniors tend to lean slightly more Democrat in elections, in the last midterms and presidential elections. In the last elections seniors, especially those who were Independent, they leaned heavily to the right. This definitely was a change; seniors were taken with Republican statements in the midterm election, “Democrats want to cut $50 million out of Medicare, we are the ones you can trust when it comes Medicare”— which is so important to these seniors. What happened in many races that were close, and where there was large proportion of seniors; some of these races went to Republicans that, who knows, they might have gone Democrats if things had been different had seniors not been there.
Moving onto 2012, the question will be whether Republicans can retain seniors as this important voting block or whether Democrats will try to lull them back and convince seniors that they are the ones who are the defenders defending Medicare, the defenders of Social Security. The emerging debate over entitlement reforms — Republicans are very committed to reformed to reducing budget deficit, and the national debt — economists will tell you that the biggest way to do that, perhaps the only way to do that, is cut Medicare and Social Security. When I say reform, to come back to them in some fashion, to reform big entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security, and way reform, I mean cut back in some fashion — these are extremely expensive programs.
DAVID RUBIN: Sound likes you’re focusing on the seniors’ battleground as the major focus, which indicates why you’re sticking with pollsters, getting into the field and talking to seniors about it.
Is there any other major part of the story that’s on your radar that you’re going to write about? Your next big project?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Frankly, I think that’s going to take me up to 2012; that is the next big project. I started working on it and a number of different stories in that vein that I’m going to be working on. At the same time, I’m going to pay attention to Medicaid and the situation in the states, because that is critically important. You have a situation now where states are feeling significant budget pressure, and are facing having to expand their Medicaid roles in 2014. Half of the expansion and coverage of health care in 2014 will come from increasing Medicaid roles; the federal government will step in in 2014, and they will fully fund these new Medicaid beneficiaries for a certain period of time. Currently, the cost of Medicaid is shared by state and fed government; then the fed government will ease the burden on the states, and is going to fully pay for Medicare beneficiaries. That won’t last forever, but even after they come back to their sharing arrangements and pick up costs for existing beneficiaries, however — right now, states are concerned that in 2014, there is a provision that is in the new health law that requires them to — states are not allowed to make changes to Medicaid that would result in Medicaid beneficiaries losing coverage. They have to maintain the current enrollment, what makes that difficult for states — we have finished with this provision, we gauge what happens with enrollment by unemployment figures. As we know, unemployment is still very high, while still high, a lot more people will be on the Medicaid roll, and will continue to be for a while. States are in a difficult position right now as they try to figure out how to afford Medicaid.
DAVID RUBIN: Last question before I’ll ask the others to join me on stage — do you think this healthcare reform will get better coverage in the 2012 elections, or will it be death panels all over again?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I wish I knew the answer to that question. We have to remember that the No. 1 issue right now for voters is the economy and jobs; that by far is the No. 1 issue. Health care will certainly be on minds of many people, that’s one reason why I’m focusing on seniors, because they’re such an important voting block and care so deeply about health care and particularly their Medicare. I think that a lot depends on what happens before election, because a lot could happen. We could potentially — the Supreme Court could take out individual mandates questions; we could end up with that gone. If that’s gone, if the individual mandate is gone, then does any of the new law remain in effect? Also a big question is, if the Republicans succeed in not even just repealing — because they’re not going to repeal the entire initiative — but what happens if they are able to slow it down, and defund part of it? There’s a good part of the law that is dependent on Congress funding it; if you lose some of that funding, that could really slow down the process. If the Republicans do that, will they offer replacement options? Are Republicans going to come forward with proposals to cut back on entitlements? Those questions, once you know answers to them, may help but it may be a while before we do. That’s all going to play out before 2012, at least to a certain extent. That will have a lot to do with the kind of coverage we see leading up to 2012.
DAVID RUBIN: If Craig, Marcus and Sebastian would come up and take these three mikes —audience members, what I’d like to do now, I’m going to throw one question at them that they’ll share, then I’ll open up the questions to you. So be thinking about what you’d like to ask.
My question to the three of you is as follows: All of you ran into issues of access to information, which is something that Marilyn discussed. For Craig, it was trying to get info on the Arizona pension system, and how much was owed to people who had already retired, and whether the state could pay for it. He had to resort to FOIA requests. And then for Marcus and Sebastian, they were looking into members of the Democratic Party in Washington, who had formed a caucus, and were raising money with Pharma. They wanted to write about the intersection with politics and money, and they called all 43 members of this caucus and not a single one would talk to them, not one.
So my broad question to each of you, we’ll start with start with Craig and move down — talk to our students a little about access to info in the year 2010 into 2011. How difficult is it to get the government to tell us what the government is doing to us and for us?
Craig Harris: In Arizona, we have a good open records law, but not everyone follows it. For a project, we did look at six pension systems in Arizona; five of those systems readily gave info we were looking for, which was names, the year they retired, how many years they worked, and most importantly how much benefits they were getting. The Arizona retirement system said we’ll give you their name, when they retired, and the years, but we’re not telling how much they got in benefits. To tell a long story short, we argued about this numerous times; then, they went and told their members that we were looking for their Social Security numbers and addresses, which got retirees up in arms. They sent letters into the Arizona retirement system how awful the Republic was, a few canceled subscriptions. Then the retirement system used that information to sue the Arizona Republic to keep us from getting records, which is almost unheard of. We countersued the retirement system, and then they realized the others five systems gave us info, and then they decided to give us the information.
Another part of project, we filed FOIA requests with all 57 school districts in Maricopa County to get names of employees of people who retired and came back to work. Some would call that double-dipping. Then we cross-referenced that information with the retirement system to see who was getting the full pension and full paycheck from the schools.
So it really depends. Some people are really good; some gave the info to us in less than 24 hours; some we had to threaten with a lawsuit. The city of Phoenix we had to threaten to sue, and then we had to appeal directly to mayor. It’s a good law, but getting everyone to follow the law is sometimes challenging.
SEBASTIAN JONES: What Mark and I did was a little different; but you had to realize that when no one would talk, you found a really good source. And I think that’s true — one thing as a reporter you know, when people don’t want to talk to you and there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t initially, you know you’re onto something pretty good. I think for most of stories I’ve done, and I suspect Mark would concur, with investigative journalism about politics, you almost have to go into story assuming that the people you’re writing about will not talk to you. The kind of people I’ve written about who’ve actually talked to me — the number of times is rare. It causes you to look at how do you get this info that people could tell you, but there are other ways to get it. Then you start to look at sourcing broadly outside of direct people you’re reporting on, looking at documents, looking at other ways to get info, and sometimes doing a little bit of anthropological field work, almost.
MARCUS STERN: Yeah, you know, politicians are famous for avoiding the questions they’re asked, talking about what they want to be talking about. But I’ve got a couple of points to make, maybe if we get back to some of the earlier discussions, if I can — one of the things I’ll say for you students out there, today’s a great time to be covering Washington and the issues that center Washington — or politicians — because there’s a tremendous amount of information and public records available on the web and on agencies’ websites, more than ever before. You can do more with public records than you ever could have done before. You wouldn’t have had enough. That’s a great advantage. Having said that, at some point you have to step away from the computer and go talk to people. That’s a hugely important thing to do; that’s what we call sourcing. When you’re dealing with politicians and coming at them with a bad story, and they’re not going to be able to somehow pull the wool over your eyes or back down from the story, what they’ll do, they’ll just completely stonewall you; their Congressional aides will just never call you back. Even if they take the call, they say they’ll get back to you, they’ll say they’ll get right on that and they never get back to you. And that’s tough.
DAVID RUBIN: Marcus, are things getting better or worse on that score?
MARCUS STERN: I think it’s getting worse; what you’ve got, is much more sophisticated communication operatives — in Congressional offices particularly, you’ve more staffers, you’ve got smarter staffers. Unless you’re The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal — they can ignore you in many cases. It gets tough; they know the game they’re playing, and they’re getting more sophisticated with it.
DAVID RUBIN: You agree Craig?
CRAIG HARRIS: I don’t meant to talk down the middle, but I think it depends. Some folks are pretty good, some are not. Ironically the press spokesman for our governor used to be a colleague of mine a couple months ago; I asked him question, a pretty benign question for the governor, that dealt with public records we weren’t getting from the governor’s office. He gave me a story that if he really wanted to he could withhold docs, because we don’t have to compile lists, which is not what the public records law said. I said, “Matt, you have lost your mind, I would expect that from someone in the business for 30 years on the other side, but you were a reporter for 10 years, and now you’re stonewalling me like a veteran PR guy.” It’s amazing.
DAVID RUBIN: What did he say to that?
CRAIG HARRIS: He said some choice words that weren’t quite as nice that had with expletives in them. After we finally calmed down, I reminded him what public records law was, and that he needed to give them to us, and we got them last week. That’s a different project looking at how they’re paying sick, leave and overtime. It’s amazing, even people who used to be on our side of the fence have so quickly put up barriers for pub access and public records.
DAVID RUBIN: Like to know what’s on your minds, do we have a mic out there? Just stand and speak into the mic clearly; if you want to identify yourself, great, I like identified speech, but you don’t have to.
STUDENT: My name is Michael Contino, a couple of the political reporting students met you earlier today. My question involves access to information as well — if people don’t have to talk to you, don’t have to give you information that’s understood. How often, when you do report something sensitive, a hot-button issue a good story about, that people wont talk to you along the way, how often do they come after you after it’s published and say it’s wrong? If you don’t have access to info that you’d like, how do you cover yourself so you don’t get in trouble for it?
MARILYN SERAFINI: You can’t really get into trouble for what’s true, or what people will eventually tell you. But it can go either way; you can have someone who will get very angry and stop speaking to you for a while. Not because you wrote anything correct or did a bad job, they’re just angry about this bit of information coming out. It can go other way.
DAVID RUBIN: Other thoughts? No?
MARCUS STERN: A couple of things — maybe I’m misunderstanding elements of the question, but you always want to be pretty sure of what you’re writing before you write it, you want to be sure you can back it up. But about not getting back to sources, for another perspective — that is sometimes if you’re the person taking it to public officials, and making them angry, but they know they have to deal to you, it helps you get access. In my business, some people suck up to public officials and I guess that’s worked for them, but there’s another approach if you’re on a subject like health care or another policy, you get to know it pretty well and you become expert — you can sometimes take it to those policy people and they then just have to deal with you. If you have good, tough stories and you’ve done the reporting, they wont ignore you at that point.
DAVID RUBIN: OK, who else?
STUDENT: My name is Alex, I want to know your views on revealing sources, how far would you go to protect source off the record?
DAVID RUBIN: So you’re asking about the relationship with anonymous sources and revealing anonymous sources? Do you each want to address that?
CRAIG HARRIS: I never reveal my sources. We had situation recently where we wrote a story a while back where we used unnamed sources; we did it, we finally were able to get lawyers to agree to it by one of the sources, who said if it goes to court, I will come forward. For the last year and a half, I protected those sources’ names and never used them. If I say I’m not going to reveal, I never reveal; if I do they’ll never talk to me again.
DAVID RUBIN: Are you prepared to go to jail to protect your sources?
CRAIG HARRIS: Absolutely, my wife wouldn’t be happy about it but yeah, I would.
DAVID RUBIN: Do your editors know their names?
CRAIG HARRIS: Absolutely.
DAVID RUBIN: Are they prepared to go to jail too?
CRAIG HARRIS: They’ll send me to jail.
DAVID RUBIN: If the judge or whoever is in charge knows that the editors also know sources, there’s nothing stopping them or requiring them to protect sources.
CRAIG HARRIS: I suppose, but we go into it seriously. If we’re going run a story — we never run with one unnamed source; two is risky, it has to correlated by three or more. There has to be a very, very significant reason why we wouldn’t reveal sources. I don’t question my editors above me, they’re not my pay rate. To determine what they do for me, people at the Arizona Republic have stood behind me and supported me. I may have never had to go to jail, but I know the legal bills I rack up for the paper, and it’s a lot. Frankly, I’m surprised they pay them, but they keep doing it.
DAVID RUBIN: And a lot of FOIA…
CRAIG HARRIS: Yeah, we filed FOIA requests and public records there and we get a lot of legal battles; we have good attorney, we win probably 96 percent of our fights. That’s a lot of money. We just had a case where we won against a small town in the Phoenix area, and we made them pay our legal fees — almost 10,000 legal fees.
MARILYN SERAFINI: Whether or not it involves a lawsuit, it’s critically important to pay attention to what a story could do to source if the identity was revealed. I had a story years ago about overcrowding in emergency rooms, and I worked on it for two months, and I had one nurse who had given me specific examples of where the overcrowding had led to deaths. I had the story ready to go and at the last minute, the nurse called me crying, begging and pleading, “Don’t use it at all.” I didn’t, we literally killed the entire story because she was afraid she would be fired if the story came out, even though it was critically important. Eventually I got to the story another way but — the big problem when we talk about off the record, or on background, I always make it a point when someone says “This is on background” — what do you mean by that? It’s something different to every single person you talk to, not supposed to use it at all, or don’t use name, information at all, or use for your own knowledge. Some people think you can quote them but can’t attribute to them, some people think you can say “A Democrat Senator’s aide,” some people think it means you can say “a source,” which of course no one would ever say just, “According to a source,” it means something different to each person.
Oftentimes you’ll have — I’m sure you’ve experienced this too — you set ground rules with someone who will talk to you, and then they try to set the ground rules late: “By the way, everything is off record.” You know, it’s not really right; there are many reporters would say you can use that information because they didn’t tell you ahead of time. My feeling is, and probably yours too, you have to protect people, you can’t do things that are going to harm people.
SEBASTIAN JONES: A couple things about anonymous sources. First off, in the kind of work we do, the chances of being called before a grand jury and asked to reveal a source who told us about a lobbyist is very low. We’re not doing national security; it’s not that kind of reporting; so it’s not really day-to-day consideration. The other thing in DC coverage, there is a real propensity — a sort of privilege — to hand out anonymity to people. You see it quite often, “unnamed source,” “People in the White House critical him were wrong,” everything else — that’s a bad use of something that should be preserved for situations where the person telling you is in jeopardy and information is relevant and important. Your job as a journalist to reveal truth about the situation; if that info is critical to revealing that truth, that’s when you can grant these kinds of privileges, allowing people to speak background or anonymous.
There have been times where people would start conversation and, “Oh everything is on background,” and basically everything is in the press release yesterday. It’s ridiculous. Many times I have to, in talking with press people now, you have to almost talk them out of background when you begin the conversation. It’s depressing, because what we’re told in these conversations is hardly anything that will get them fired or in trouble or anything, so quoting exactly in a press release that was sent already.
MARCUS STERN: Just to clarify, we deal with Congress, and Congress is exempt from FOIA, it’s not like you have disclosure laws that subjected to. It’s different from state and county. On the issue of protecting of sources, I don’t know — for me anyways, it’s never been will I go to jail, of course I will. It’s how long I’ll stay there, that’s something to be negotiated. The other thing is on this question of off record — Marilyn you made this very clear — reporters have totally different ideas of off the record and background, you have to spell that out. Purists say don’t go off the record, stay on record, and there are good reasons for it in certain circumstances, everyone differs. I personally am very willing to go off record in many situations, because I just want to know what’s going on. Once I know what’s going on, then I can confirm it, then get in in paper. If I don’t know what’s going on, then it’s hard for me really to do my job.
DAVID RUBIN: Before Charlotte Grimes comes back up, would you join me in thanking our panel tonight?
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: I really want to thank you, David, and all of you for this wonderful discussion. I have to also sort of borrow a story from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; if you don’t know the story you’ll figure it out. To go back to Craig and this notion of his editors and whether they would go to jail, I’ll apply this story to us: A good friend would come and bail you out of jail, a good editor would come bail you out of jail. A really good friend would be standing next to you behind bars and say “Damn that was a lot of fun!” A really good editor would be standing next to you behind bars and say, “Damn that was a really good story!” Let’s keep hoping for more good reporters and more good editors.
And before we end tonight, I’d like to ask Peter Gosselin, Robin’s Toner’s husband, to say a few words, and we’ll close up a minute after.
PETER GOSSELIN: It’s easy at events like this to make big claims about small things. This program is a small program right now, but what we’re starting here should be — it has to be — it has to become a big thing. We launched this in time to recognize coverage for a year in which fundamental questions were raised about function of government, and the purpose of government. In 2010, we head into two years when the question seems likely to not only be the function or purpose of government, but the very fundamental obligations, what fundamental obligations, if any, we have to each other as Americans; how we as a society will cohere. I’m in the unusual position of being a journalist for 35 years, and am now a member of Obama administration — as you can imagine, I have my own views of how this should come out. But whatever your political views are, there’s still the question of how we discuss this issue of the obligation we have to each other. In some ways, the Toner Program and Prize is an experiment in the proposition that this discussion should be based on fact, and that it should be conducted at least in a minimally civil way, that we recognize our opponents are human beings who hold dear to their beliefs. If the program advances this experiment, advances the notion that there are facts around when we’re deciding our approach to government should be—if we accomplish this, we will have fulfilled the public purpose of the program.
For me, there’s a private one as well. One of things that happens when you’re the last parent of a family with young kids, people you have known for years, some who have come to other events with us, confide in you and that they lost one or the other of their parents when they were young. In one way or another, these people say what they most needed, long after the blow, even now, is to represent the lost parent, to stand in their place. This program will give Nora and Jake that chance. It is to remind them, should they forget as time passes, that their mother was someone to be reckoned with in her chosen field. They will be given the opportunity to represent Robin in over and over again in years ahead, and in doing so to ask what would she have thought? What would she have believed? What would she have hoped? What would she have loved? To Chancellor Cantor, Dean Branham, Charlotte Grimes and all of you, for helping to raise our children. For that I am grateful.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Peter, I hate you for making me weep. But thank you very much for all of this, what all of you should know none of this would be possible without Peter and his dedication and veracity for making this program what it is, and what it needs to be, I’ll ask you to join us in the lobby for a few of my favorite things: coffee, chocolate, conversation — sorry, we don’t have the scotch. You will also find a little bit of material to help you make some contributions to that million dollar endowment. Feel free, we would be happy to take anything you could give us. We appreciate most of all your time and your care, for this thing we call democracy and journalism. Thank you very much.