On Thursday evening, a flurry of articles announced that Gov. Tom Corbett had a plan to use Medicaid funds to help 500,000 Pennsylvanians buy private insurance on the federal exchange. Remarkably, none of the stories (The Associated Press, The Inquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) included a comment from Democrats, unions, hospitals, or healthcare advocates who insist that Gov. Corbett should simply adopt the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion.
"We were not asked about it yesterday by any of the writers," Bill Patton, a spokesperson for state Rep. and Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, told City Paper on Friday. "Most of the time, we are asked what's our reaction to something. Even if we haven't seen the details of the plan, we're usually asked what we think of it initially."
It appears that the Corbett administration released the proposal to reporters on the condition that it be "embargoed" — reporter-PR-speak for releasing documents on the condition that they not be made public until an agreed upon time. But normally, an embargo means that reporters can neither disclose the document nor publish an article about it until the set hour.
Last week, things went rather strangely: Reporters posted their stories on the documents on Thursday evening, but the documents were not released to the general public until Friday. Opponents were not able to access or even respond to the documents until then.
The ostensible purpose of most embargoes is to give reporters time to examine a complicated document, though politicians are often criticized for using it as a tool to manage the news cycle. In this case, the Corbett Administration's aims seem to have been purely instrumental.
City Paper asked a number of Harrisburg reporters for details of the arrangement, but has not yet heard back. The Inquirer and Associated Press both ran follow-up stories airing critics' concerns with the proposal (and the initial Post-Gazette article did include one comment from an outside expert).
Corbett, whose office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, surely knew those criticisms would arise. But thanks to his inventive media strategy, his office was able to push them back a day and reserve initial coverage for the administration's message alone.
"That's traditionally not how an embargo works," says Reuters media critic Jack Shafer. Typically, an embargo is supposed to allow news reporters to "report completely at a set time...This seems like they singled out for special treatment a couple of outlets and then put conditions on what can be done with the information. That's not an embargo."
The stories laid out the details of a controversial plan, outlined in September, to use federal dollars not to put an additional 500,000 low-income Pennsylvanians onto Medicaid but to subsidize their purchasing private insurance from the federal exchange; and to require recipients to prove that they are looking for work, and for most to pay money toward a premium.
The expansion has become a major dispute in Republican-led states since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not require states to expand the program as a condition of receiving Medicaid funds, as President Obama's Affordable Care Act had contemplated. Though the federal government will pay for the vast majority of the expansion's bill, many Republicans don't like the extra cost, don't like Medicaid, and really don't like Obamacare.
So Gov. Corbett has tried to thread a politically-fraught needle, appeasing revenue-hungry hospitals and healthcare advocates without infuriating his party's right-wing. Controlling the message helps.
"The embargo is, in almost all cases, the most craven form of news manipulation," says Shafer. "If a document can be released, if a document is being released, just release the damn document."
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