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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Posted January 15, 2009 | 06:40 PM (EST)

Change.Gov's First Big Failure


Change.gov had its first big failure last week, though you might have missed it with all the bigger news happening around the world.

Any uproar from Obama supporters about the failure was quickly preempted, as it happens, by a constructive assist from a charter member of the MSM. I did a brief run-down of the events, which may already be familiar to avid Huffpo readers, for the "Noted" section of next week's Nation magazine:

Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman and a seasoned press operative, knows how to maneuver around prickly issues. So when the most popular question on Change.gov asked whether Obama would appoint a special prosecutor to "independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping"--besting 76,000 other questions submitted in recent weeks by citizens--Gibbs simply ignored it. Instead, he recorded a YouTube video tackling other popular questions. Then Obama aides posted a note on January 9 inaccurately categorizing the special prosecutor question as "previously answered." That gambit was the first obvious failure at Change.gov, Obama's admirable attempt to create a portal for more open and transparent government.

It is striking that Obama's aides, who helped win the election by harnessing new media, believed they could just spin away from their online interlocutors. Instead, the move backfired immediately. Bob Fertik, the activist who submitted the question, campaigned for it; and progressive websites, including thenation.com, blasted the dodge. Within a day, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann picked up the story. A day later, Obama was compelled to answer the question in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who quoted it and pressed Obama with two follow-ups. Obama's answer, which prioritized moving "forward" but did not rule out a special prosecutor, made the front page of the January 12 New York Times.

By blatantly ducking a tough question, Gibbs set off a reaction that forced Obama to answer it. With transparent government and vigilant reporting, important questions can actually trickle up.