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WH Visitor Logs: Research Continued

Here’s an update on my research over the past week…

Types of Names that Appear on the White House Visitor’s List: It’s not just tourists names who are being released, although I fear they may be the majority. Names of several prominent union leaders, Wall Street executives, registered power lobbyists, Democratic Party Chairs, business leaders, heads of non-profits and philanthropists also appear.

Mainstream Media’s Coverage: There is little mainstream media coverage of the release of the records, and what stories have been done are pretty generic. When Obama announced the release of the names (October/November), it was covered to some a minor extent and it was mostly celebratory, calling it a “huge step.” Most stories/journalists didn’t challenge the transparency claim of Obama. Since the release of the records several months ago, there has been a little coverage of the lists themselves (see below for journalists who have used the lists for reporting purposes). The little coverage has been mostly puff pieces, marveling at how duplicate names have led to people who have the same name as celebrities visiting the White House that aren’t actually celebrities themselves. There has been some minor coverage as well, but it’s mostly reporting who is on the list, not necessarily making any claims about the validity of the lists themselves, or investigation what can be done with the information. Not exactly earth-shattering journalism so far…

Stories That Have Used This Research: Although the mainstream news media has covered the release of these records pretty positively overall, reporters, journalists and activists have dug a little deeper into this information. One interesting thing I noted is that a lot of the stories I found using WH visitor logs are from conservative news sources. For example:

- The Washington Examiner did a critical story at the end of February on the fact that President Obama and senior members of his staff have met on at least four occasions with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, whose organization is the nation’s largest provide of abortion and referrals. The piece was especially crticial because a spokesman for Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) said her boss has not spoken with or visited Obama. The piece goes to list other logs of pro-choice groups/individuals that met with Obama and his advisors to discuss an upcoming WH health care summit and no pro-life groups were invited to participate in the event. To see the full story, click here.

There was another piece written for the Auburn Journal that trolled through the visitor logs to determine that the Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern was the most frequent White House Visitor in 2009. About this they criticized: ”For an administration that promised to renounce interest groups, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) certainly has the president’s ear and is sure to be a major player in the December jobs summit.” Stern visited at least 22 times in 2009.

Liberal sources have also used this data, such as this article from The Huffington Post titled “White House Visitor Logs Show Obama Turned to Business Leaders.” This piece used the visitor logs to show that Obama frequently consulted with leaders of the business and financial communities they were saving from the brink of the financial collapse. The logs showed that Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue visited the White House on ten different occasions, meeting twice with the president, twice with his chief economic consultant, Larry Summers and three times with Obama’s business liaison, Valerie Jarrett. The piece also goes on to report that between January 20 and the end of August (of 2009) lobbyists, strategists and others with a stake in health care reform made 575 visits to the White House. And that’s just the ones that were reported!

The majority of the stories I found that used the data follows a very similar pattern, who met with whom, where, how many times, and speculation as to why, that seems, for the most part, pretty solid. There have also been a few examples of bloggers that have picked up the research and examined it, rather than mainstream media.

Some further questions/musings about these stories. Do they raise the validity of the news stories in each case? Would there have been these kinds of stories without it? How much speculation is involved in terms of what goes on at these meetings?

Other Points of Research

  • Ah, it’s getting  worse! I thought it was 90 days after that visitors were released. Well there are several reports that it’s actually 90-120 days after!
  • It appears that the policy was the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the “good government group” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) which had sought visitor’s logs from both the Obama and Bush administrations. This might be the most devastating piece of research I found so far and seriously brings into question the motives behind releasing this data.
  • The data has been known to be released on late Friday afternoons becoming part of the Friday Night News Dump Syndrome!

A Few Points of Growing Frustration: There is no way to tell what’s been censored, what’s been left off due to security concerns. How many names are taken off this list? Is there a clear-cut definition of what is “confidential” and what is not? Not as far as I can tell. And although the list is searchable and downloadable (good things), often the most important piece of information – why the meeting is being held – is left blank. It will often have a very generic description, but it would really help if the list posted the affiliation of the person so as to avoid confusion. You could then also do a search via this field, making it that much easier to find the data you are looking for. Due to the sheer massive amount of names on the list (eg  up to 100,000 have been released at one time), it’s quite difficult to troll through. Which makes the fact that some journalists have used this resources even more impressive. Even if these lists were 100% accurate representations of who visited, when, we still would have a long way in knowing what was discussed, and what influence these meetings had on policy etc. It appears to be just data, and I’m not sure how far that can take us!

I know it’s a lot of information but there is a lot of digging to be done on this issue. Believe it or not I’ve left out some stuff and I hope to include it in my final post. Any thoughts people have before I finish up my research and do a concluding post on Monday would be helpful! Thanks!

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9 Comments

  1. HoniehLayla 16:01, Mar 5th, 10

    Elizabeth,

    The WH visitor logs is an interesting subject but what I am a bit perplexed about is, are these the logs that just about anyone can sign?

    Shouldn’t there be a different set of logs for those who actually converse with the President or meet with any of their staff.

    On the other end of the spectrum I find it sneaky and intriguing that journalists sift through these logs to find newsworthy information.

    The piece mentioned PP was especially interesting – I’m not quite sure if you can use a log as the basis of what may be shaping Obama’s opinions/policies for the U.S. but it’s nice to know who is entering/leaving.

    Also, I wonder HOW accurate these logs are. Can I walk in and put in a fake name – I’m curious as to the procedures involve, (fact checking, etc).

  2. ElzbthMllr 16:32, Mar 5th, 10

    @Honieh Finally a question I can answer. The lists are very accurate in terms of the people who visit. You have to submit your Social Security # to enter the White House and sign in on these visitor logs. You’re screened in advance, before you even put your foot in the door. They are insane about security as you can imagine, so the level of fact checking before you enter is really high. The problem is that I have no idea how many people they leave off of these lists, and they don’t have to release that information (as of yet).

    And yes perhaps there should be different lists for people who meet with the President vs. his staff. You can find that data out because it’s all in one list. Yes, it’d be easier if you didn’t have to sort through to figure it out, but the info is there to some extent you just have to be willing to look for it.

  3. HoniehLayla 16:56, Mar 5th, 10

    Interesting – how do you know that there are people being left off the list?

  4. Ryan 16:56, Mar 5th, 10

    Transparency? Yeah, right, as you mention, they are released almost several months later and one has no way of knowing whether or not that the info has been censored.

    I do think it was interesting that you posted the stories that utilized these logs, still I’m weary about making conclusions based upon the statistical information about how many times a person met with this individual or staff, although it does imply that these people are busy with visiting the white house.

    I wonder if the journalists take it any further and seek to inquire the President or his staff or the business leaders that are meeting with him to the repeated instances and frequency to why they’re meeting.

    What they should do is people should fill out survey’s next to their name to see if they were satisfied with their visit lol. That would be interesting as well to connect the dots.

  5. nadine 19:53, Mar 5th, 10

    Great investigative articles! The Huffington Post has stroke a nerve- almost 5000 comments! The link to the CREW report isn’t working though, could you update it? Thanks!
    I am impressed that these journalists have managed to interpret the data. 75.000 visitors in October! You really need to be an detective or highly skilled person to filter this information. The interface is definitely not user friendly. Last Tuesday, we were talking about Wikipedia’s not so transparent transparency- we have the same problem here…
    The time-span of 120 days is a non-sense. If yesterday’s news are old news, what would you say about the visitor’s logs?! I agree that additional information should be released about the existing visitior logs, as the affiliation of the visitor, position of the visitee, and the duration of the meeting (5 min or 1 hour?). I know that lobbyists need special accredition/registration to enter the Congress, and they often need to “pay access.” What are the regulations for the White House?

  6. ElzbthMllr 23:39, Mar 5th, 10

    My apologies – the link should be fixed now. Thanks for letting me know.

  7. mushon 12:59, Mar 7th, 10

    My main concern with the WH visitor logs is that so far they seem to be promoting mainly gotcha journalism. This is understandable because the process seems to be: “Can we use the WH visitor logs to make the point we already want to make. Let’s run these names and see if we can catch them on the list…”
    Can there be any serendipity in browsing these lists? Can the lists support actual investigative journalism and be more than a tool to support an early thesis?

  8. Alexandra 10:42, Mar 8th, 10

    I wonder what the point is of posting the lists at all, since there are so many points in the process which can render the information useless: waiting months to post the list, censoring names and reasons for meeting… Is it just so the administration can claim to be transparent on some level? On the other hand, some logs are better than no logs, I guess. It just seems kind of useless since the information is so out of date by the time it’s released, and particularly if it comes out on Friday night!

  9. Jimena 14:59, Mar 8th, 10

    I agree that some logs are better than no logs. What I see of value here is that the WH has opened a crack to info.that was previously not released at all. This lists could be a good starting point to support actual investigative journalism, as Mushon points out, but only if they become a)easier to search and organize, and b)released fastly. That will only happen if the news community makes a case out of it and pushes the WH for more accurate, fresh information. I think it’s up to journalists to really demand transparency here–IMO, knowing who’s meeting with the president and how often is information valuable enough to fight for better, quicker data.