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Liberal think tank prepares tough questions for journalists to use

SHOWCASE | August 26, 2004

The Center for American Progress has more questions than it knows what to do with.

By Dan Froomkin



The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank already well-known among Washington political reporters for its dogged research and must-read "Progress Report" newsletter, has a lesser known product line as well: A weekly e-mail to a handful of reporters and television producers headlined "Unanswered Questions of the Week" and designed primarily to be sprung on Bush administration officials and other conservatives when they appear on the Sunday talk shows.


The center, which is headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, also includes in its regular newsletter suggested questions for members of the public to pose during online chats on the White House Web site. In addition, its Web site has long lists of proposed questions before major presidential news conferences.


The good news for reporters and editors: You don't have to agree with someone's politics to recognize the value of their questions.


The Weekly E-mail


In contrast to the group's daily newsletter, which goes out to about 60,000 people, the weekly "unanswered questions" e-mail goes to about 30 media types, says David J. Sirota, the center's director of strategic communications. (Interested journalists should e-mail dsirota@amprog.org or charvey@amprog.org to get on the list.)


Here is a selection of questions from recent weeks.


July 23: Why has the Bush administration underfunded homeland security efforts across the board?


July 16: How can a member of Congress vote to extend expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act without knowing – in many cases – how those provisions been used by the Justice Department?


July 11: Why does the Associated Press have to sue to obtain President Bush’s National Guard records? Why won’t the president release his records?


June 25: What happened to destroy Iraqi confidence in the United States as liberators? FOLLOWUP: After the transfer of power, what is the Administration doing to rebuild confidence in U.S. intentions in Iraq among the Iraqi people?


Most questions come with a lengthy paragraph of background and context and a half-dozen linked sources.


Back in March, "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer used one of the center's questions, verbatim and with credit, on Secretary of State Colin Powell. Here's the transcript.


"Mr. Secretary, a group called the Center for American Progress has posed this question: If, as the Administration claims, the White House did make terrorism a priority, why did Vice President Cheney wait five months to establish a terrorism task force, which then never met?"


Powell's meandering response starts: "We were working the problem all along." And ends: "With respect to the task force, I can't answer the specific question. I'm not familiar with the document."


Presidential Press Conferences


The center routinely Web-publishes suggested questions before presidential news conferences.


On April 13, for instance, the questions included: "How is Iraq different from Vietnam?" And, "What else did you need in order to realize there was a threat?"


Some of the questions for the October 2003 press conference seem almost prescient:


"Why has the Administration repeatedly misled the American people and U.S. troops serving overseas about how long they should expect to be deployed?"


And "Why is the White House insisting on quickly forcing a $20 billion reconstruction bill through Congress when the World Bank says Iraq can only absorb about $6 billion next year? Is it because the White House does not want serious congressional scrutiny of how the bill sends millions to corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel? Or is it because it does not want any scrutiny near the 2004 elections, as the Financial Times reported?"


Ask the White House


The White House Web site now routinely has senior administration officials sit down for online chats, in which they answer questions from the public.


Some officials make it a big joke, and only take softballs. But some take the hardballs.


A while back, the Center for American Progress came up with the idea of priming the pump a bit.


"Essentially, what we're trying to do is create citizen journalists," Sirota says. "We’ve actually had a lot of success."


Sirota speculates that the repeated submission of similar questions is a plus.


Back in May, the center proposed several questions for White House senior health policy adviser Doug Badger, and just about all of them showed up in his chat, including this one from Kelly in Dallas: "Why is the president telling people his new health savings account proposal will save money, when studies show these plans will drive up deductibles for average workers and could cause more than one million people to lose their existing health coverage?"


In April, the center proposed some questions for Interior Secretary Gale Norton.


Stephen, from Melbourne Village, Florida asked one of them: "Since late last year, in Utah alone, 40,000 acres of land have been sold off by the Department of the Interior. Why are we selling land that has been identified as of wilderness quality by the Bureau Land Management's 'most experienced wilderness professionals?' Why are we selling the land for an average of $20 an acre when each acre is expected to yield revenue of $80 a year?"


Norton responded: "Thank you for this intriguing question, Stephen. The Department of the Interior is not selling land in Utah and certainly NOT for $20 an acre.


"It’s unfortunate that there is so much bad information out there. Protecting wilderness values is an important responsibility and we take it seriously. …"


What's really unfortunate is that Stephen couldn't hyperlink his question, like the center did, to this report from the Environmental Working Group, analyzing the BLM's final sale list for the February 2004 Utah Oil and Gas Lease Auction.


Here are some of the questions the center suggested for Treasury Secretary John Snow, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.


Anyone Else Proposing Questions?


Do you know of any other organization, partisan or not, journalistic or not, that is proposing questions that reporters should be asking? E-mail me at froomkin@niemanwatchdog.org, so we can let others know, as well.


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