THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Minneapolis, Minnesota) ______________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release April 8, 1994
PRESS BRIEFING BY DIRECTOR OF MEDIA AFFAIRS JEFF ELLER AND KSTP TV GENERAL MANAGER HAROLD CRUMP AND NEWS DIRECTOR DEAN BUNTING
IDS Tower Minneapolis, Minnesota
2:25 P.M. CDT
MR. ELLER: This is a briefing on tonight's town hall meeting and the process that went into it. Tonight the President will participate in a 90-minute town hall meeting at the television studios of KSTP. There will be a studio audience. In addition, there will be studio audiences connected by satellite from KSFY in Sioux Falls, WSIN in Milwaukee, and WDIV in Detroit. Coordinates have already been released; standard excerpt rules with a mandatory credit.
In setting up this town hall meeting today the picking of the audience was left at the discretion of the participating stations. The White House did its usual call to the stations in terms of the audience and said, it is your show; you pick the audience and you select the questions. The President will show up, hopefully, early enough to not cause a delay in the program. And accept all questions. No prior restrictions on questions imposed by the White House.
As last night and as in Charlotte, the White House offered to the participating stations letters from people who had written to the President and First Lady on health care. It was at the discretion of the stations whether or not they chose to put those people in the audience, and whether or not those people were to ask a question.
Because of some questions about that, we have asked the participating stations tonight that, while they are free to have the people who wrote letters to the White House in the audience, we would prefer that they not ask questions.
To my right is Harold Crump, the general manager of KSTP; and Dean Bunting, the news director of KSTP, should there be any questions about how the audiences are selected tonight.
That's really it. Questions, comments?
Q I have a question. Mr. Bunting, would you relate your mechanism for selecting people?
MR. BUNTING: I'd be happy to. We were contacted by Jeff a week ago Tuesday and offered the presidential town hall meeting, which we accepted. And as Jeff has told you, he told us at that time that it was our show, that we were free to do the choosing of the audience any way we saw fit; that we could decide the questions in any way we saw fit. So what we did is set up a phone number; people could call over a 25-hour period, starting last Thursday night -- a week ago Thursday night. We got over 4,100 calls to that phone number, and we requested that when people called in, they would give us a question that they would ask the President.
On that basis, this week for about two days straight, we chose the audience for tonight's broadcast, trying to be as diverse as we could be, trying to be as balanced as we could be in selecting questions. There was a -- I think it's fair to say there was a suggestion that the President could choose questions from the audience, but we decided as journalists that we would like to choose questions ahead of time, at least in the different cities. So in Detroit, Milwaukee, Sioux Falls, and here in the Twin Cities, we had some preselected questions. And if time permits, toward the end of the broadcast we will open up the field in the Twin Cities and let the President point around to ask questions.
Q Does the selection of a person by a question require that person to then ask that question when he comes up? In other words, are you really selecting the questions as well as the people?
MR. BUNTING: That's the suggestion, but whatever people say when they get in front of a microphone is going to be up to them.
Q Do you have any problem as a news director, or with either last night's or tonight's or in Charlotte's or any other with the White House requesting that you include certain people and perhaps the implication, if there is one, that they be a questioner?
MR. BUNTING: Well, I would have a problem with that. We were asked if we would allow someone in the audience, and I don't think we would necessarily have a problem with having someone in the audience. But we would like to leave it up to ourselves as to who asked the questions.
Q Do the questions all relate to health care?
MR. BUNTING: Yes, they do. Yes. But, again, it's really up to the people when they step to the microphone. The topic -- the town meeting tonight is called "Health Care in the Heartland."
Q Could you identify -- I understand that there is one person who wrote a letter from the White House who is in the audience tonight?
MR. BUNTING: Yes.
Q Could you identify that person?
MR. BUNTING: I learned yesterday afternoon that there was a person who had written a letter to the White House from this area. And that person will be in the audience, but that person is not --
Q I'm just wondering the identity of the person.
MR. BUNTING: I'm sure I can. I don't have that right now. I've been producing a broadcast, and to tell you the truth I didn't really pay a lot of attention to that person.
Q like to know if that person should ask a question in the open session at the end, we'd like to know.
MR. BUNTING: Sure. If that person asks a question at the end, it's one person out of 101 in the studio audience.
Q Can I ask you a question about the general tenor of the questions that you received? Were people positive towards the President's plan; were they negative; did they have very specific questions about narrow visions of the plan? Could you just talk in general terms about --
MR. BUNTING: I think it's fair to say that there are questions on both sides of the issue -- people who are adamantly opposed to the President's proposed health care plan; people who support the President's health care plan; people who want to know about costs; and people who want to know -- it's very diverse. The age groups of the audience that we've gotten are children to senior citizens.
Q Was it overall more positive, more negative; was it split down the middle?
MR. BUNTING: Good question. I think it's fair to say it's balanced.
Q Why did you decide to restrict it to health care alone? And was there any other consideration to take other questions on other topics?
MR. BUNTING: The request from the White House was for a town hall meeting on health care. So we decided that we would do it that way. And, again, with the questions submitted we have called 100 people back and said you've been selected for the studio audience tonight. Again, they will have a health care question that they have submitted to us. Whether they ask that is going to be up to them.
Q I understand that perhaps the person you mentioned about being in the audience, that although you may not have made a final selection at the time, that that person and the people -- one person each at the three affiliates were actually contacted and were given the impression, if not the commitment, that they could expect to be on the list of questioners. Is that correct? If not, can you give me --
MR. BUNTING: I have no knowledge to that effect, to tell you the truth. Honestly, I have been for a week and a half working to produce the broadcast and working with the stations affiliated. The first I had heard about anyone possibly being in -- four people was -- I heard four today and I heard one yesterday that there was a request that maybe they could be in the audience.
Q And their understanding that they were then going to be called upon by each of the stations, which then adds up to four questions during a program and not one -- four people selected by the --
MR. BUNTING: I do not know what, if anything, was said to those people.
Q Your station did not give your listener or your audience participant any such contact or any assurances that they might be called upon as well as being invited to sit in the audience?
MR. BUNTING: We said that you're going to be in the audience with your question, and it depends on how long the President is talking.
Are you -- you're referring to our general audience, the 100 people in the audience or the one person?
Q The person that was chosen on the basis of the compelling story they had written to the White House, yes. Was that person by your station given some feeling that they would be called upon to --
MR. BUNTING: Not at all. Not at all.
Q How about the other stations? Do all the other stations, as far as you know, use the same guidelines for selecting the audience?
MR. BUNTING: I'm not exactly sure what the other stations did to select their studio audiences. I can tell you that the studio audience in Detroit is similar in size to ours of about 100 people. In Milwaukee, I believe the audience is about 50 or 60; and in Sioux Falls, I've heard somewhere around 35.
Q The reason is because some of the other stations, like in Omaha last night, drew their audience from interest groups, basically from a Rolodex of people they knew were interested in the subject. You don't know whether that happened with any other stations involved?
MR. BUNTING: I do not know in the other cities. I can tell you that our breakdown in our audience here in the twin cities is going to be about 80 percent of people from the general populous and 20 percent from health care providers.
Q I gather there's been, since it was announced that your station was going to do the town hall, that there have been complaints from some local Democrats from the -- some party officials about the station ownership having a Republican orientation and the station owner having contributed to a bunch of Republican candidates. Since that question's come up locally, I thought I'd ask, did that have any impact on who you selected and what type of questions you selected, anything of that sort?
MR. BUNTING: I can say no. But I can also defer to Harold Crump.
MR. CRUMP: Let me first correct the misimpression that was in the local press. This gentleman who was identified as a Republican is not such; he's an independent, number one. Number two, he is the only broadcaster chosen by President Clinton to be a member of the superhighway committee, you'll recall, of the 27 people that have been put together. So I think what we have here is something known as whiners and poor babies. We say poor baby to them, and they whine in the paper for us, and we're all happy.
Q Mr. Crump, considering the revenue that's involved in a prime time broadcast, was it a tough call to agree to do this town meeting?
MR. CRUMP: Yes, it was a very tough call. It took us about one-half of one second. It's wonderful. We were so pleased to have been chosen. We assumed that they chose us because they thought we could do a good job. And now we think it's out job to prove them to be correct. And we have gone to every extreme to make certain that the audience is totally balanced and does not represent any single group. And they have to their credit in the White House given us a totally open hand on that.
Q Just another procedural question, please. In terms of the actual people who were chosen tonight who will be in order asking questions; at the beginning then, somebody in your audience -- what, an emcee, of some type -- stands there with a person, as we've seen in other cities, and says, this is Mr. John Doe, you have chosen that person in the order?
MR. BUNTING: We have not yet. We are getting ready to choose people in the audience, and then they will go in a certain order, yes. But the White House has no knowledge of this. This is something that we wanted to do on our own.
Q And what's the basis that you have in selecting them in a particular order?
MR. BUNTING: Really there's -- the only basis I know is that we're talking about tossing out a tough question right at the beginning and going from there.
Q And it's not a free-for-all until the end when the President can actually pick them?
MR. BUNTING: Time permitting, yes, it could be a free for all.
Q Mr. Bunting, would you explain to us, please, why you feel it's more journalistically correct to have you select questioners on the basis of what they'll ask than to have the President just call on people at random in a room full of people?
MR. BUNTING: I think it's just a matter of choice. It could have been done either way. I mean, we feel very comfortable that it could have been done one way or the other, and that was just the way we decided to do it. I mean, we did consider both ways.
Q But you turned down a request from the White House to have the President do it the other way.
MR. BUNTING: I mean, there was some talk thrown back and forth that sometimes the President prefers to go around the room, but we felt -- but it was totally up to us.
Q Wasn't there a specific request, though, to you to allow it to be done that way?
MR. BUNTING: I think there was maybe something said that the President sometimes likes to do it that way.
Q Just for deadline writing this evening, what was done last night by the station, which was very helpful, was to put out a list of the people who were going to ask questions, just so we had the spellings of names and hometowns. If you could consider that, it would be helpful.
MR. CRUMP: We had a request from the local press three days ago to give them a total list of the names and addresses and the questions, and we refused. And we refused on the grounds that we did not want anyone from the White House staff to be able to read the paper and know what the questions were in advance and then tell the President. So at this stage we could get something to you, surely, at the end of this thing. But that's why it has not been put out ahead of time.
Q I'm not asking for the questions, just the names so that we can spell them correctly when we're writing on deadline.
MR. BUNTING: Yes, we can do that.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END2:40 P.M. CDT