ABC's Sawyer Swears Health Care Special 'Not an Infomercial'; Touts Network Fairness

Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer popped up on Sunday's Reliable Sources and swore that ABC's much-scrutinized health care special with President Obama "won't be an infomercial." She also seriously touted the objectivity of the network, cheering, "I know that our network has worked very, very hard to be completely- completely responsible and fair and serious about big issues." [Audio available here]

After host Howard Kurtz played a clip of FNC's Sean Hannity attacking the June 24 special as an infomercial, Sawyer, who will be co-hosting the program with Charlie Gibson from inside the White House, promised, "We will be there, and these people in this room are going to be able to ask questions from every single vantage point. And they are going to challenge the President, many of them."

When asked whether ABC should include guests from the health care industry, Sawyer, who appeared via phone, said such voices would be featured and again swore, "And I think a lot of people haven't understand fully that this is going to be a room full of widely diverse ideas in which people who actually experience the reality of front-line health care are going to get a chance to pose their challenging questions to the President." However, Kurtz didn't quiz the host as to why the ABC network has refused to air ads from the health care industry during the special. And when Sawyer noted that ABC "has done town hall forums before," he didn't point out that many of them have been severely slanted.

During 2007, ABC devoted two programs and a total of 64 minutes of coverage to Democratic town halls and zero for Republicans. One such example occured on March 26, 2007 and also focused on health care. In that case, GMA co-host Robin Roberts tossed softballs to then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A member of Clinton's 1993 universal health care task force just happened to be in the audience:

ROBIN ROBERTS: What you said then in, in ‘93, many people felt it was just, in some ways, ahead of its, ahead of its time. Somebody that was there, and wants to ask you what is different now, between what happened then, and he is Dr. Steve Eckstat. He is, he works at the free clinic of Iowa. Doctor?"

CLINTON: Hello, doctor.

DR. STEVE ECKSTAT: Morning. In 1993, I was a member of the Clinton Health Care Task Force when we were attempting to provide universal health care coverage of all Americans. We were unsuccessful, unsuccessful then and now the number of uninsured, 80 percent of whom are working families and individuals, has risen from 23 million in 1993 to over 46 million. If elected president, Senator Clinton, would you be willing to try again to provide universal health care coverage for all Americans and make that at priority for your administration?

At one point, Eckstat can be seen reading his rather lengthy "question."

Towards the end of the June 21 segment, when asked if some networks put Obama on the air because of good ratings, Sawyer admitted, "I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who feel that that's true."

ABC claims that its upcoming special will be fair and balanced. History would suggest otherwise, but viewers will be able to judge on Wednesday night at 10pm.

A transcript of the June 21 segment, which aired at 10:14am EDT:

HOWARD KURTZ: As Congress begins to tackle President Obama's health care plan, the White House is again trotting out its salesman in chief. The President will sit down with ABC's Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson for a prime time special devoted to health care this Wednesday night, 10:00 eastern, and to talk to Sawyer the next day about the issue for Good Morning America. The event at the White House, which will feature questions from an audience selected by ABC, is already drawing up bits of political flak. And joining us now by phone from New York to talk about the program is Diane Sawyer. Good morning.

SAWYER: Happy Sunday, Howie.

KURTZ: Thank you very much. Now, you have got the ultimate guest for this special, the President. Why not also include guests from the insurance industry, the hospital industry, the drug companies who also have a stake in this health care battle?

SAWYER: But, that is exactly who we are including. We have people from the front lines of the health care dilemma, and they are insurance companies. They are big businesses. They are small businesses. They are physicians. They are drug companies. They are people who have operated at the state levels, which are some of the laboratories, as we know, which tell us something about health care in America. And, of course, we have patients there, too. And I think a lot of people haven't understand fully that this is going to be a room full of widely diverse ideas in which people who actually experience the reality of front-line health care are going to get a chance to pose their challenging questions to the President.

KURTZ: As you know, the Republican National Chairman Michael Steele has said that ABC is promoting Obama-care, and Fox's Sean Hannity took a shot at this, noting ABC being owned being own by parent company Disney. Let's play a little bit of Hannity. Let me just play the byte.

SEAN HANNITY (Fox News): President Obama's love affair with the mainstream media continues. But as we learn more about next week's Mickey Mouse sponsored infomercial, one thing is becoming clear, and that is our headline this Wednesday night, journalism in America is dead.

KURTZ: I'm sure you would like to respond to that.

SAWYER: Oh, Sean. Again, ABC, I'm so proud of ABC. And I hope that there is some recognition for the fact that this network is trying to tackle a serious issue in a serious way, and we are doing something that we would love to see a lot more air time dedicated to. What is more important than a dialogue about health care? It is not an infomercial. ABC News does not do that. We will be there, and these people in this room are going to be able to ask questions from every single vantage point. And they are going to challenge the President, many of them. And as I said, this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It's an American issue. And I don't think Republicans or Democrats can argue that only people on Capitol Hill should be addressing this issue. We should have a great debate about these issues with people on the front lines as well.

KURTZ: It's an interesting sign of our media culture, Diane Sawyer, that this program is being attacked before a single minute has even aired. But I'm wondering whether you think if some of the critics are, in effect, working the refs, hoping to create a climate where you and Charlie Gibson will feel compelled to somehow be tougher on the President.

SAWYER: I don't know whether they are or not, but our job is to have a serious conversation. This is not theater. This is too important. And we have to bring the issues and the questions, the strongest questions we can. And, you know, ABC has done town hall forums before. We did one on guns with Bill Clinton and then came back a year later and did another one. And they were extremely vital and robust debates about an important issue in the country. And we had talked to the Bush administration, which didn't feel I think in many ways it was a forum they felt was best for them. But we also had, since Ted Koppel, felt that the town hall forum, bringing people in who are not on all of our Sunday shows and all of our cable shows all the time, on our morning shows and our evening shows all the time, bringing people in who can bring firsthand experience to bear sometimes creates the most effective and educational forum of all.

KURTZ: I didn't know that ABC had made the offer to the Bush White House. As you know, health care, a complicated issue dealing with employer mandates and deductibility of company benefits and the government insurance option, not the easiest story for television to tell. In this context, how much do you think you'll be able to pin down the president on the nitty-gritty of his proposal?

SAWYER: Well, we want to get the conversation started. We don't assume that it can be comprehensive. This issue is too big. But we're going to try to lay out with some clarity the big questions, take on as many of them as we can, and hope that it at least begins a national conversation, a conversation in doctor's offices and in families and, obviously, in businesses and companies as well that continues.

KURTZ: President Obama has been doing a lot of network television, as you know, Dianne. There was that two-part prime time special on NBC, "Inside the White House with Brian Williams." He talked to Harry Smith on CBS this morning about being a father for Father's Day. So at the radio and TV correspondents on Friday night, the President told a joke about who his advisers are in some of these difficult matters. Let's take a look.

BARACK OBAMA: A few nights ago I was up tossing and turning trying to figure exactly what to say. Finally, when I couldn't get to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.

KURTZ: So, do you think there's a perception the media is on Obama's side and that maybe explains some of the criticism of the upcoming ABC special?

SAWYER: You know, I can't address the overarching perceptions of the media. I know that our network has worked very, very hard to be completely- completely responsible and fair and serious about big issues. And that was comedy.

KURTZ: That was clearly comedy. I have got half a minute. Do you think, though, that there's a hunger among the networks to put the President on because there is a lot of public interest in Obama and he is good for ratings?

SAWYER: I'm sure- I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who feel that that's true. In this issue, and I keep coming back to it because I don't want to conflate anything here, what is more important for us to talk about than health care? What is more important for us to begin to form democratic responses to, than health care? And that's why we are doing this.

KURTZ: I'm going to withhold judgment until after I see this on Wednesday night. And Diane Sawyer, thanks very much for calling in this morning.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org