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Bush's 'Town Halls' vs. Obama's Town Halls

2:05 PM, Jul 1, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The New York Times is covering President Obama's health care town hall-style meeting today in Northern Virginia rather credulously. This is the orchestrated political event that will feature a hand-picked audience and pre-screened questions about Obama's health care plan for the nation.

In one story, the Times bills it as Obama's effort to "steer health debate out of the capital."

A blog post echoes that storyline, simply referring to Obama's "selling his plan to the public."

Those two write-ups, and an update on the town meeting, as it starts, all explain that the president will take questions from the audience (and, Facebook and Twitter!) without ever mentioning that the content of both the audience and the questions was governed by the White House.

It struck me that I remembered New York Times approaching coverage of President Bush's Social Security town halls somewhat differently, back in 2005 when Bush was similarly seeking to take the "debate out of the capital" and "sell his plan to the public."

Indeed, a quick search reveals that in February 2005, according to the Times, Bush was taking "Social Security to 2 'town halls.' That story notes the "orchestrated" nature of the political event:

To make his case, Mr. Bush held two town-hall-style meetings with younger and older workers, events that recalled some of the most carefully orchestrated, and successful, moments of his re-election campaign last year. There were teachers, preachers, recent retirees and a widow, all embracing elements of his message.

In another story, the Times described one part of Bush's "road tour" thusly:

At the "town hall" meeting in Kentucky, Mr. Bush sought to emphasize the benefits of his Social Security plan for rural populations, part of a strategy to win over specific groups of voters to using personal accounts as part of an overhauled program of retirement benefits for younger workers.

When does a "town hall" become a town hall, without need of scare-quote qualification, one might wonder? (When Clinton and Gore held Social Security town halls in the late 90s, they were just plain town halls. Although, one story notes rather deep into the article that the AARP picked questions.)

Both White Houses are entitled to hold such events, which are inherently and sensibly orchestrated to benefit each executive. The press is right to note that fact while reporting them. Odd that the Times chose to do that only for the Bush administration, huh?

I guess their journalistic skepticism is now more properly termed, "skepticism."