December 9, 2013
Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius with President Obama. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius with President Obama. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The story in Politico Magazine last Thursday was carefully couched. Written by Hoover Institution fellow and Government Accountability Institute (GAI) President Peter Schweizer, the piece found that President Obama had barely met at all directly with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during the critical years leading up to the Obamacare launch, “according to Obama’s own official White House calendar.”

The headlining was a bit less guarded: “When Barry Met Kathy. Almost never, it turns out.”

Schweizer’s piece feeds off of a study done by GAI, which maps out how the president’s one-on-one meetings with Cabinet members fell disproportionately along the State-Defense-Treasury axis. Here’s how Schweizer short-hands the results of that study in his Politico Magazine piece: “A new Government Accountability Institute (GAI) analysis finds that from July 12, 2010, to Nov. 30, 2013, the president’s public schedule records zero one-on-one meetings between Obama and Sebelius. Equally shocking, over the same period, the president’s calendar lists 277 private meetings with his other Cabinet secretaries (excluding full Cabinet meetings).”

In a Friday briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about these findings. Or “findings,” as he might just term them. He referred to Schweizer as an “advocate” and argued that the report is based on a “ridiculously false premise.” Said Carney: “Cabinet secretaries don’t regularly get entered into the visitors logs because they come frequently. And Kathleen Sebelius comes frequently, and she meets frequently with the president.”

The Department of Health and Human Services delivered its very own response to the Schweizer thing, stating that Sebelius had attended “dozens” of meetings with the president “in the last year alone.” Last Thursday was the most recent, said the department.

Politico Magazine responded to officialdom’s debunking with some attitude of its own. In a note appended to the story, it repeated the findings of the GAI report and asked about all these alleged Obama-Sebelius meetings: “If, as Carney claims, Secretary Sebelius ‘is here a lot and meets with the president with regularity,’ why aren’t they listed?” The White House refutation, noted the “update” in Schweizer’s story, “is absurd and alarming.”

Martha Joynt Kumar offers a different perspective on things. She’s the Towson University professor who spends her time poring over presidential records in a much-cited and ongoing effort to document the media’s access to presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. If there’s one thing Kumar knows, it’s the comprehensiveness of advance presidential schedules. Or non-comprehensiveness. “Presidents have never released the full accounting of what a president was going to be doing that day,” Kumar says. “There are a lot of meetings that wouldn’t appear.”

Advance public schedules for any given president, Kumar says, are commonly just a page in length; the diary of what actually happened that day may stretch to five pages. Such is the chasm between what’s planned and what happens. It’s in that space, HHS appears to be saying, that the president and Sebelius have matched wits in recent years. The retrospective diaries of actual presidential meetings generally aren’t released until 12 years after a president leaves office, Kumar says.

Brushing aside the super-important technicalities of presidential scheduling, the Politico Magazine story bears a fatal shortcoming in Journalism 101. Judging from the text, Schweizer never approached the White House or HHS for comment on his research. The White House confirms that it was never asked about it, and HHS declined to comment. The Erik Wemple Blog asked Politico over the weekend whether it had reached out to the relevant authorities, among other questions; its response didn’t address that matter.

Politico Magazine is the creation of Susan Glasser, the celebrated former editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Upon her accession to Politico, her duties were described as twofold — producing compelling long-form journalism as well as quick-twitch opinion content. The Schweizer piece appears to be an example of the latter. Under American journalistic standard operating procedure, opinion pieces generally don’t carry an ironclad obligation to seek comment from the folks being criticized (or lauded). That’s because they rest on settled facts.

Yet Schweizer’s piece is actually a hybrid between opinion and news — in fact, just the sort of news story that the longtime plain-old-Politico staff would prepare. With a prominent space dedicated to the response of the White House and HHS, that is.

Just a few weeks into its life, Politico Magazine is still orchestrating a landing in a newsroom with a set of well-defined work habits. It’ll take a while before the organization chalks out the boundaries between the publication and the rest of Politico. In this case, however, it clearly crossed into news turf with unfortunate consequences for the entire brand. When Politico scores a clean scoop of this magnitude — and it doesn’t happen infrequently — all the bigs are sure to follow: the New York Times, The Washington Post, national news networks. In this case? The Kansas City Star, Breitbart.com, Fox News. Time magazine weighed in with an unfavorable fact-check.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.