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Transparency on the campaign trail

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From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27. On Oct. 3, more than 2,700…

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

On Oct. 3, more than 2,700 doctors signed onto a full-page ad in The New York Times demanding that in the closing weeks of the election, John McCain release his medical records.

The ad featured Harvard professors — one with a Ph.D. in addition to her M.D. — and other prominent doctors speaking out against, in particular, McCain’s refusal to supply detailed information about his bouts with melanoma.

The focus was on McCain, but the ad was emblematic of both his and Sen. Barack Obama’s campaigns: each spoke in favor of transparency, and boasted track records in the Senate supporting government accountability. But when it came to letting the sun shine on themselves, both candidates fell short — even of the low bar set by George W. Bush’s notoriously shuttered campaigns.

Cloistered in the spotlight

That’s the assessment of Craig Holman, who has worked with the non-profit Public Citizen in its efforts to get financial information from campaigns throughout the election cycle: In all of its work, he said, the group had an easier time getting financial information from Bush’s campaigns — both of them — than it did from Obama or McCain.

Beyond records, though, and for all the media saturation this campaign season, even the candidates themselves managed to stay virtually inaccessible.

Just three weeks before the election, media columnist Howard Kurtz mused in The Washington Post that on the campaign trail, “lack of access is accepted as a given.” In a Slate article that ran about the same time, Obama biographer Liza Mundy aired her frustrations about the campaign. In her efforts to write about Michelle Obama, Mundy said several sources — even a cousin of Michelle’s — had been told by the campaign not to talk.

“As a feature writer, I thought I’d achieved nadirs of debasement doing profiles of Hillary Clinton (who never talked to me) and Al Gore (who finally did). But now I realize I never knew what reporting pain was until I set out to write a journalistic biography of Michelle Obama,” Mundy wrote.

In June, Obama flatly lied to reporters, saying he was going to Chicago when in fact he was headed to Washington to meet with Hillary Clinton. As a group, the press was not pleased.

Such restricted access to candidates, along with strapped newsroom budgets, meant that by the final weeks of the race only five newspapers were traveling with the candidates, Kurtz reported.

But as early as March, with the Democratic primary still running at full tilt, newspapers were criticizing the campaigns for their secrecy. A Dallas Morning News story highlighted Clinton’s failure to release her tax returns. McCain had not made his medical records or tax returns available. His refusal to open up detailed medical information was especially troubling to many watchers because of his age and health history.

In May, McCain switched course and allowed reporters to examine his medical files — except for mental health records — dating back to 2000. His campaign said in all he unveiled 1,173 pages.

The catch, of course: Only about a dozen reporters were allowed to see the records, and for three hours, tops. No photocopies allowed.

“Senator McCain wanted to be very transparent,” McCain medical adviser Nick Muzin was quoted as telling a Washington Post reporter when the records were released.

Notably absent from the pool of reporters invited to inspect the records was The New York Times and its reporter Lawrence Altman, who covered the campaign and has a medical degree.

Altman told the Columbia Journalism Review that McCain’s campaign was upset over editorials The Times ran criticizing his failure to release the medical records or his wife’s tax returns.

While McCain has been essentially healthy since 2000, when he had melanoma lesions removed from his face, in his 72 years he has been in three plane crashes, survived five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and had four bouts of melanoma.

The medical records are important, Holman said, because “people want to assess whether or not McCain could survive” in office.

That grim question became all the more politicized when McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, raising doubts from both ends of the ideological spectrum over her readiness to be the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. And Palin faced complaints over her own lack of transparency.

First she was pressed to release her tax returns. Adding fuel to that fire: Sen. Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate, handed out 10 years’ worth.

By mid-September, when Palin hadn’t released the records, ABC News reported the only candidates going back to 1976 who had waited longer were George H.W. Bush in 1984, George W. Bush in 2000 — when he needed two extensions to file his returns — and Joe Lieberman.

Palin’s returns, finally released in early October and placing her family worth at more than $1 million, raised questions among tax experts on whether she owed back taxes.

Meanwhile, reporting from Alaska, James Grimaldi, a Washington Post reporter, said after Palin was named as McCain’s running mate, it seemed as though her gubernatorial administration ground all public records request processing to a halt.

“Since she was named there has been a complete reversal of openness,” he said.

There is also a local Alaska watchdog’s ongoing lawsuit over access to Palin’s e-mails. In response to a state open records law request filed in June for e-mails, her office released boxes of redacted information.

That information helped reveal her regular use of private e-mail accounts, such as Yahoo!, to conduct official business. In response, the requesters have asked the Alaska courts to rule on access to those e-mails.

Better news: Financial disclosure

Whatever their shortcomings, though, one area of transparency in which the candidates improved over their predecessors, particularly as the campaign wore on, was campaign finance.

Holman highlights the example of “bundlers” — people who gather donations for the candidates — as critical to understanding who is behind a candidate’s coffers. He calculated that 24 percent of Bush bundlers received some form of government appointment during his administration.

“Bundlers are doing a lot of work for these presidential candidates,” he said. “Most of them want something in return for it.”

While much of a campaign’s finance information is available from the Federal Elections Commission, bundler data is not. What enabled Holman to track the Bush appointees was that the president’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004 gave out, on a regular schedule, detailed information on the bundlers — including their work addresses.

“We find that these bundlers do in fact receive favors from the president,” Holman said. “If you can bring in 100 of those $2,300 checks, you’re bringing in a quarter million dollars — and that buys favors.”

In this election cycle, Holman said Obama was the first to give out the information. But all he released at first were lists of names. No employer information or addresses.

McCain’s campaign initially refused to release bundler names at all. Public Citizen did its best to glean the information from his Web site, Holman said.

There is a “strong reluctance to provide these sorts of records,” he said. “It also can appear to be very tainting of the camp itself, especially in McCain’s campaign … because we’ve identified that many of these bundlers are registered lobbyists.”

Holman said that is in part because of the stigma surrounding taking money from lobbyists — something Obama has said he would not do.

Over the summer, both McCain and Obama came around. Most of the categories of information the campaigns ultimately provided — names, work information, amount of money bundled — matched what Bush made available.

During the 2004 election, according to WhiteHouseforSale.org, a Public Citizen Project, Bush provided the names and states residence of bundlers who raised $100,000 or $200,000. Likewise, Democratic candidate John Kerry provided lists of bundlers who raised at least $50,000 or $100,000.

“By disclosing, it shows that one believes in transparency,” Holman said, “and one can argue that ‘I’m not going to be bought off by these people’.”

In her Slate column, Mundy pointed out that every reporter knows being denied access to information just means you have to do better reporting and dig harder. But here that’s not the issue, she said. Caring about a campaign’s transparency — particularly Obama’s — is important for other reasons.

“You should care if you are expecting an Obama presidency to achieve new levels of transparency,” she wrote. “Obama, if elected, may well bring many changes to Washington, but unusually open access to the media — and, by extension, the public — is not necessarily going to be one of them.”