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Tag Archives: access to information

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!

Welcome to the White House: Please Sign In

On January 29th, 2010, the White House released – for the first time in history – its visitor records for the previous 90 days. In included more than 75,000 White House Visitors (the 75,000 represented six months worth of visitors) – now the information is released on a monthly basis. It was part of Obama’s commitment to transparency (however, that definition itself is rather unclear).

The full policy of disclosure described on the White House’s blog site here.

At the surface, it appears there are several positive and negatives of such a policy.

Positives:

  • It is unprecedented for a White House to do this and they should be commended
  • The decision to do this was voluntary
  • It’s available online rather than in some dusty basement in Washington D.C. (which goes a long way in making information “public” in the 21st century). You can also download the information which allows for research potential.
  • Not only is it available online, it’s easily searchable and has quite a bit of detailed information such as visitor’s first and last name, meeting room, who they met with and occasionally a description of purpose of the visit.

Negatives:

  • It’s done 90-120 days after the fact. Is there a good explanation for this? Why can’t they do it daily/weekly?
  • The White House still controls the flow of information and acts as a gatekeeper (eg they can remove names for “security concerns” or any other purposes they want).
  • The “description” (eg purpose of the meeting) is often left out, when that’s probably the most important information!
  • Where is the accountability in this process? Is there any? Will it just encourage meetings outside the White House?
  • Who manages this list?
  • What about duplicate names (the White House admitted this themselves that this has been a problem)? Is it searchable according to the member of the White House who called the meeting? If not, why not?

Over the next few weeks of this travalogue I will continue exploring this issue, including delving deeper into the visitor’s lists themselves, and finding out what kind of information can be gleaned from this list. What kind of research can be done around the people who has access to these lists? Can this information be used successfully in mashups for example, to determine for example what visitors made campaign contributions, etc.

I will also examine instances in which the visitor’s list were useful for journalists, bloggers etc, as well as look at cases when they weren’t not used but could have been (and perhaps do some of that research myself if possible). I will also look further into the limitations of this kind of information.

I tried to get a good visualization of what this visitor log looks like, but was having trouble with getting a coherent screen shot that illustrates the user functionality of it. If you’re interested, you can go here to view all the visitors named “Elizabeth” who have been to the White House.

Thanks to everyone who helped me formulate this idea. I really appreciate it!