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Image Control at Its Worst: The White House Immigration Chat

Shawn Jain,
Media Strategist,
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December 12, 2013

About midway through yesterday’s immigration chat with Vice President Biden and Domestic Policy Advisor Cecilia Muñoz, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that the conversation was a tightly controlled event, with the questioners chosen beforehand, even though it wasn’t advertised as such.

Huffington Post immigration reporter Elise Foley also expressed via Twitter how it was odd how many of the questioners were anti-immigration reform, especially since poll after poll has shown that Americans nationwide support immigration reform by wide margins. Furthermore, there were practically no questions from those who have voiced concern about the Administration’s record-level deportation rate and harsh enforcement practices, a subject that has been the focus of the immigrants’ rights and civil liberties communities.

Today, we know why it felt like a rigged debate – because it was: Politico reports that “those who actually got to speak directly with Biden were first recruited by Skype and vetted by the White House.” Though Biden and Muñoz did not know what the questions would be beforehand, such sanitizing of actual debate by cherry picking who could actually ask questions and carefully vetting them is an example of this Administration’s obsession with message control.

Look, as someone who works in communications, I get the White House’s desire for message control, though as The Associated Press’s Santiago Lyon said in his New York Times op-ed today, such efforts are not only undemocratic, they are in direct “defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on.” In addition to being wrong in principle, White House outreach efforts around the event were misleading. Just hours before the event, the White House sent out the email below encouraging people to ask questions of Biden and Muñoz.

Q&A on Immigration with Vice President Biden and Cecilia Muñoz

But in reality, those people who submitted questions the day of or even during the event, including Ju Hong, while the “submit” link was still active had no shot in getting their questions answered because the only people who were selected were recruited and/or vetted beforehand by the White House.

In the future, if the White House must do this sort of pre-screened event where they frame the confines of a debate in terms that are most politically favorable to them, they should at least be honest about how they advertise it. Of course, what would be even better is less of an obsession with image control.

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