White House public relations team aims bad news for fewest ears

Adverse reports often surface on weekends, holidays

By Sharon Theimer
Associated Press / December 2, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama entered the White House promising a new era of openness in government, but when it comes to bad news, his administration often uses one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook: putting it out when the fewest people are likely to notice.

White House environmental adviser Van Jones’s resignation over controversial comments hit the trifecta of below-the-radar timing: The White House announced the departure overnight on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, when few journalists were on duty and few Americans awake, much less paying attention to the news.

As with past administrations, Friday looks like a popular day to “take out the trash,’’ as presidential aides on the TV drama “The West Wing’’ matter-of-factly called it. Along with weekends, holidays, and the dark of night, the final stretch of the work week, when many news consumers tune out, is a common time for news unlikely to benefit the president to be released.

Among recent examples: On Friday, Nov. 13, the administration announced it would put the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on trial in civilian court in New York. It also disclosed the resignation of the top White House lawyer, who had taken blame for some of the problems surrounding the administration’s planned closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The following Friday, the Justice Department quietly notified a court that it intended to drop manslaughter and weapons charges against a Blackwater Worldwide security guard involved in a 2007 Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. The court filing was sealed from public view and submitted without ceremony, in contrast to the Monday last December when the Justice Department held a noon news conference and put out a lengthy press release to announce the charges.

On previous Fridays, the White House acknowledged it might not be able to close the Guantanamo prison by January as promised, announced Obama was imposing punitive tariffs on car and light-truck tires from China, and disclosed that Obama had waived conflict-of-interest rules for several aides.

“It’s a time-honored practice where the president’s trying to talk about what he wants to talk about and push the subjects that maybe he doesn’t want to talk as much about into a time when people aren’t paying as much attention,’’ said Dee Dee Myers, press secretary during Clinton’s first two years in office and a consultant for “The West Wing.’’