Arkansas reporters slam senators for ‘stonewalling’ local news on health care

Arkansas US Senator Tom Cotton in 2016. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Creative Commons

IN MAY, TOM COTTON—Arkansas’s junior senator, a promising GOP star with ambition and an Ivy League pedigree—became one of 13 Republican senators tasked with drafting new health-care legislation. During the weeks that followed, Cotton stayed conspicuously tight-lipped about the Republican bill.

In June, James Arkin wrote for Real Clear Politics:

“Cotton hasn’t made any public comment about the measure since it was released last Thursday—the press release on his Senate website the day GOP leaders unveiled the bill is one sentence linking readers to the legislative text. Normally one of the more visible GOP senators when it comes to cable TV appearances, Cotton hasn’t conducted any interviews since the Senate health care bill was unveiled.”

Cotton’s media strategy has made it difficult for local news outlets to offer his constituents any substantive thoughts from their senator on potential changes to their health coverage, or on his role in shaping an Obamacare replacement.

“Senator, why do this whole thing behind closed doors?” asked Kevin Miller, host of KARN News Radio’s “First News,” last week before the Senate quashed its bill. Cotton replied that his involvement with the health care working group allowed him to make a greater contribution to the bill:

“Kevin, I can tell you from my perspective, it’s actually been very beneficial for Arkansas and for me. If this bill had gone through either the Senate Finance Committee or the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, I would have had a much smaller role in it… overall, I think that most senators, if they’ve been at all interested in the matter, have had more say in this than they would had it gone to either of the two normal committees.”

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After the Better Care Reconciliation Act failed Monday night, Cotton provided a statement to Arkansas’s Talk Business & Politics, a statewide news site, and to Little Rock public radio station KUAR about his support for ACA repeal efforts. He repeated much of the statement, which was light on substance, during a friendly interview with Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated conservative talk radio show:

“The American health care system is still groaning under the weight of Obamacare and we can’t simply accept failure as an outcome. I am pleased that Senator McConnell has decided to move forward with the very bill to repeal Obamacare on which 49 Republican senators currently serving in the Senate supported just 18 months ago in December 2015.”

On Tuesday, Cotton again voiced his support for an Obamacare repeal during a segment on conservative commentator Laura Ingraham’s radio show, which airs on one station in Arkansas. By the end of the day, repeal efforts had stalled.

 

He controls access and wants to control the message, and if he gets with people who are unfriendly, he can’t control the message.

 

COTTON’S SELECTIVE MEDIA SILENCE has hampered the efforts of Arkansas newsrooms to cover a major policy story for their audiences.

“Tom Cotton decided long ago that he would talk only to media friendlies,” says Max Brantley, senior editor and blogger for the alt-weekly Arkansas Times. Brantley tells CJR he hasn’t talked to Cotton in several years. “He controls access and wants to control the message, and if he gets with people who are unfriendly, he can’t control the message.”

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett tweeted last week, “Tom Cotton’s style of representing Arkansas is to nurture his ambition and bank on his constituents being generally uninformed.”

Brantley says the Arkansas Times is “on a blacklist probably because I’ve been pretty critical of him.” One short Arkansas Times piece, about costs associated with the health bill’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, accused Cotton of “hiding from questions about this legislation.” Another, headlined “Terrified Tom’s patience wearing thin: Sen. Cotton’s office calls cops on disabled protestors,” calls Cotton “elusive” and “MIA on the punitive health legislation.”

Brantley and the Times aren’t the only ones criticizing Cotton’s media strategy. Jacob Kauffman, who covers politics and hosts “Morning Edition” for KUAR, wrote a week ago that both Cotton and US Senator John Boozman “are now entering yet another week where they’ve declined interviews and stonewalled questions from multiple media organizations.” When Kauffman asked their offices for comment, both senators basically said nothing: Cotton’s office said the senator was “still reviewing the legislation,” while Boozman’s said, “the senator is continuing to work with his colleagues on a path forward.”

Kauffman says Cotton’s staff typically doesn’t respond to his station’s media inquiries, but will occasionally say they can’t do the requested interview. On Tuesday, following the failure of efforts to repeal and replace the ACA, Kauffman sent Cotton’s staff a note with a few questions and an interview request. Cotton’s office responded with the senator’s boilerplate statement of support for an Obamacare repeal.

“That’s as close to responsive as they get,” Kauffman says.

Dan Holtmeyer, who covers health and business for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said that Cotton “has taken the position he won’t give his position until the final process is over.”  Boozman, the state’s other senator, has given interviews, Holtmeyer told me, “but what he says has been about as vague.”

However, Cotton may be sensitive to some of the criticism.

Roby Brock, who hosts ABC-affiliated KATV’s “Talk Business & Politics” Sunday show, wrote last week on the show’s blog that Cotton and Boozman “have remained quiet over the past three weeks regarding their positions on the entire healthcare debate.” Brock added that his show made “repeated efforts to interview both senators…but those requests have been declined.” That critical blog post earned praise from the Democrat-Gazette’s Brummett:

Yesterday, after senators met with President Donald Trump to discuss health care, Cotton spoke with Talk Business and Politics in what the site called an “exclusive interview.”

Cotton, who appeared on Brock’s show several times during the past year, told the host, “Repealing Obamacare and working in a replacement over a two-year period isn’t the best solution. It seemed like earlier this week that was the most practical solution, given where we were.” Cotton said Republican senators are “going to be working on negotiating a replacement bill right now that we can vote on next week.”

Caroline Rabbitt, Cotton’s communications director, did not respond to CJR’s questions about Cotton’s media practices.

 

On this most important issue to their state and nation, our U.S. senators behaved timidly when the opportunity was ripe for them to behave boldly.

 

AS YESTERDAY’S MEETING between Trump and GOP senators proves, the national health-care debate is far from over. Medicaid remains a vital program for more than 70 million Americans, but threats to the program persist in numerous states, including Arkansas. Questions linger for many of Cotton’s constituents—about Medicaid, certainly, but also rising premiums and high deductibles for those buying coverage in the individual market. Reporters must play a role in answering those questions, even when faced with silence and avoidance from elected officials.

In Arkansas, the media are starting to come down hard on Cotton and his lack of access. John Brummett, the Democrat-Gazette columnist, took Cotton and Boozman to task on Wednesday, the day after the Obamacare repeal efforts failed:

Here’s the deal: Boozman—and Cotton, too—weren’t simply stonewalling me. They were stonewalling you. They were stonewalling Arkansas. They were stonewalling their governor. They were stonewalling the Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, UAMS, home-state medical providers generally and home-state poor folks especially. …On this most important issue to their state and nation, our U.S. senators behaved timidly when the opportunity was ripe for them to behave boldly.”

Surely Cotton isn’t the only member of Congress who leans on friendly outlets and familiar talking points. Judging from his town hall in February, his constituents are clamoring for policy details. Cotton has yet to provide them.

When politicians can expect friendly journalists to ask inconsequential questions, media outlets become little more than a megaphone for their views. That can slant important stories—not just on health care, but on all critical policy matters. Without fierce pushback from reporters—especially at the local level—such friendly coverage can constrict debate and rule out alternative perspectives.

In Arkansas, local reporters are providing that pushback. “I’m not finished with Boozman and Cotton,” wrote Brummett after his Wednesday column. “Another’n tomorrow.”

He made good on his promise today, with a piece that criticized Cotton’s selective media appearances. (Hewitt’s conservative national talk radio show provides Cotton with “the real constituency for his ambition,” wrote Brummett.) He also blasted Boozman and Cotton for their silence on specific policy matters:

Vital Medicaid expansion in Arkansas will continue. If you like Medicaid expansion, Cotton and Boozman will be fine with your thinking they were for it all along. If you oppose Medicaid expansion, they’ll be fine with your thinking they were trying their hardest to kill it.

Perhaps there will be “another’n” tomorrow, as well—if not from Brummett, then from another Arkansas reporter. As it should be.

CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.