MSNBC’s O’Donnell, Time’s Brill Hype Tech ‘Heroes’ Who ‘Rescued’ ObamaCare

On his program The Last Word Thursday night, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell glorified the tech experts who repaired Healthcare.gov after its disastrous launch, calling them “heroes.”

And yet, the host lamented, the pocket-protector posse don’t consider themselves to be heroes.



O’Donnell was talking to Time magazine contributor Steven Brill, who wrote this week’s cover story on the failed rollout of the ObamaCare website and the White House’s attempt to fix it. Near the end of the interview, Brill praised the young computer nerds who performed the fixes for their hard work and humility. Said Brill:
 

[T]hese people worked through Thanksgiving. They worked right up to Christmas Eve. You know, they literally worked 19 or 20 hours a day.... And they got it done. And in that sense it's a good story about people who were modest. I mean, the hardest reporting I had to do was to get each of these people to take individual credit for something they did.
 

O’Donnell agreed with his guest, adding, “Yeah, you can tell. You have heroes in here. And they just won't step up that way and claim that.”

That’s pretty high praise for a group of people who simply cleaned up the mess that the president’s first team of experts made. But O’Donnell and Brill were clearly captivated by the “drama” of the whole thing. At the beginning of the segment, immediately after introducing Brill, O’Donnell could barely find words to express what the tech experts did. He gushed, “This is a drama. This is really – I mean, I've read a lot of inside-the-White House accounts...” Brill later called the technical repairs “really dramatic.”

Not only were these fixes a drama, they were also a “rescue.” Brill talked about how the Obama administration eventually reached out to the very same software experts who had helped with the technical aspects of the president’s 2012 reelection campaign. According to Brill, “[T]hose are the people who rode into the rescue.”

Did they ride in on horses or in Priuses? O’Donnell picked up on the dramatic language, asking, “What was the feeling at the beginning of the rescue? Was there confidence that we were going to rescue this thing?”

At least give O’Donnell and Brill credit for admitting that Healthcare.gov was initially a failure in need of “heroes” to “rescue” it.

At the top of the segment, O’Donnell said the website “failed miserably” when it was first launched on October 1. And Brill, while speculating as to why the initial website builders allowed it to be launched with so many problems, commented that maybe “they didn't know that this thing was just a disaster waiting to happen.”

Below is a partial transcript of the segment:



LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: ‘When we turn it on tomorrow morning, we're going to knock your socks off.’ That's what the White House chief of staff was saying privately about the website for the Affordable Care Act the night before it was turned on and failed miserably. And two weeks later, the president was secretly thinking of scrapping the whole thing and starting over. So reports Steven Brill in his new article for Time magazine on how ObamaCare was saved. And joining me now, Steven Brill, Time magazine contributor. This is a drama. This is really – I mean, I've read a lot of inside-the-White House accounts –

STEVEN BRILL: Well, the chief of staff was right. They did knock everyone's socks off.

O’DONNELL: They did. Yeah. So, how did they get to the point where the White House chief of staff and presumably the president believed that when we turn it on tomorrow, it's going to be so great?

BRILL: Because that's what they were being told. They would ask these questions. In fact, the same chief of staff told me that the president would end every meeting when they were planning the launch by saying to everyone, well, this is all great, but none of it matters if the technology doesn't work. Does the technology work? And everyone said, ‘Yes, boss. The technology works.’ And they were getting all of their information from the Department of Health and Human Services and from the Medicare people who were supposedly building the website. And everybody was just afraid to tell them, I guess, that – or they didn't know that this thing was just a disaster waiting to happen

***

O’DONNELL: Now it’s in trouble; they’ve discovered some trouble very, very quickly and they bring in this emergency team. First of all, how did they assemble them? I mean, I might want the best of these tech experts in the country, but who knows who they are and how do you get them to come?

BRILL: They talked to people in Silicon Valley and the irony is they talked to the veterans of their own campaign staff who had put together all the data, the analytics, who had put together the software –  

O’DONNELL: Best ever in a campaign.

BRILL: They were dealing with the political data analytics people from the beginning to do the political part of it, which was, you know, to create the marketing messages, but they didn't talk to the technical people who had created all the software and who knew how to write code. Those are the people they reached out to on October, beginning October the 18th or so. And those are the people who rode into the rescue.

O’DONNELL: What was the feeling at the beginning of the rescue? Was there confidence that we were going to rescue this thing?



BRILL: The first feel –

O’DONNELL: You have in here the president saying October 17, we may have to start completely over.

BRILL: The first job over five days was for these people to come in and look at it and say, do we have to just scrap the whole thing and come back in six or nine months? And what they said was the lucky thing was that the people building it had made so many obvious mistakes that it was quickly fixable. So they said, you know, we can – in ten weeks, we will be able to rebuild a website that all these contractors for over $300 million had spent two and a half or three years building. They said, you know, don't worry, we think we can – you know, we think we've got this.

O’DONNELL: What is the diff – I mean, there's a passage in here about government is not in the business of delivering a product online the way other retailers are.

BRILL: Well, they don't deliver consumer products.

O’DONNELL: Consumer product online. And you say in here that that's normally done in a small circle. You try one state and you see how that works and then you start to expand it out over time.

BRILL: No one ever does a complicated software delivery by doing it all at once. Whoever created, you know, the software that's running the control room here tested it first before they brought it, you know, to MSNBC and NBC and said here, use this in every studio. No one does that. They did that.

O’DONNELL: What about -- this is a government that operates this giant thing called Social Security, Medicare, millions and millions of participants who are being tracked through the computer systems. It seemed like the government knew how to deal with millions of people through this way.

BRILL: Well, they do, and as you know because you’ve been involved in this over the years, they've had some problems. For example, when Social Security was started, they had a tech problem. They had a computer problem. You know what it was? No one could figure out how to create enough different numbers for people.

O’DONNELL: Social security numbers.

BRILL: So they had to create, you know, 15 million numbers. Just have to write it down on a piece of paper. So they always know they have problems. But they tend to solve them in a better way than they did here. Although now, it works.

O’DONNELL: This is – so you're confident –

BRILL: And it was really dramatic.

O’DONNELL: In terms of the website working, is that all settled now?

BRILL: Well, it's not all settled. The back end of how they pay the insurance companies and stuff like that still has to be done. But these people worked through Thanksgiving. They worked right up to Christmas Eve. You know, they literally worked 19 or 20 hours a day. You know, they’d go out to the shopping mall to buy new clothes. And they got it done. And in that sense it's a good story about people who were modest. I mean, the hardest reporting I had to do was to get each of these people to take individual credit for something they did.

O’DONNELL: Yeah, you can tell. You have heroes in here. And they just won't step up that way and claim that.

BRILL: They’re selfless, they're modest. And they come from Silicon Valley, which is not what you often think of these days when you think of Silicon Valley.

O’DONNELL: This is just great reporting and analysis. Time Magazine contributor Steven Brill gets tonight’s last word. Thanks, Steve.

BRILL: Thank you.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.