Friday, May 8, 2009

Press Releases: Dodging Shots

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In politics, and with the media, it's the outcome, and not the intention, that matters. That's fortunate for Senator Susan Collins, who got lucky twice in the same week.

Back in February, "moderate Republican" senator Collins managed to strike $780 million designated for preparing for and fighting flu pandemics from President Obama's economic-stimulus package — all part of her efforts to cut Democratic proposals down to a size she could support.

When the swine-flu panic struck last week, Collins was a main target of critics from outside the GOP who labeled her budget-cutting efforts part what lefties call "the party of No's" campaign to gut Obama initiatives.

But as the mainstream media joined the attack, the senator was able to defend herself with two key points. There was a December 2008 letter in which she and other senators asked Senate leaders to add $905 million to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which is run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. And, during the stimulus-package debate, she'd actually come out in favor of flu-pandemic funding. She just wanted that kind of spending to go through the regular federal-budget process, rather than sliding into an emergency stimulus spending package.

Those moves, the kind of calculated bet-hedging political-speak that all elected officials spout, turned out to be a solid enough counter-attack that the mainstream folk gave her a little breathing room. During that time, nature took its turn to hand Collins a win (at least so far). The H1N1 (swine) flu pandemic threat appears to be smaller than originally feared, so we don't seem to need the millions of dollars she slashed — nor the millions she asked for and failed to get — after all.

If Collins had slashed pandemic funding and hundreds or thousands had been sickened or died, she would have been roundly castigated for her two-facedness. But since that hasn't happened, the media — but not the blogosphere — is allowing her to escape criticism for, in reality, failing to increase pandemic funding even a little bit.

This example illustrates one way the public can become more informed, not less, by carefully using both the traditional media and the blogosphere. Sure, the ranting bloggers didn't do what the pros did — call Collins's office and seek some answers — but they called attention to something needing further investigation, which the pros promptly provided.

What the pros found, when they took the bloggish outrage and made it (not Collins's action) the story, was that the senator's staff were already in backpedal-defense mode.

The crucially telling quote came in spokesman Kevin Kelley's hastily issued statement last Monday: "There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds."

Of course, a quote like that led to more criticism from bloggers, who noted that Collins hadn't stuck to her guns about increasing flu-pandemic funding. The latest federal budget added just $1.4 million in that area, and Collins (because she objected to other things in the bill) voted against the whole thing anyway.

It also led to an uncommon swipe by the mainstream press: the Washington Post's comment that "Collins and the others who led the fight to axe the flu money three months ago can only hope that doesn't change."

Whether or not it does, we can be sure that Collins knows that she is being more closely watched than she might be used to, and by people who are undeterred by the relentless "news cycle." Blogging watchdogs are more like hounds than shepherds. And only luck protected Collins this time.