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GOP Criticizes ABC's Obama "Infomercial"

This evening President Obama will participate in a town hall forum on health care, which will air exclusively on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern Time. And Republicans aren't happy about it.

The Republican National Committee derides the event as an "infomercial." And a newly-formed group called The Media Fairness Caucus, headed by Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, sent a letter to ABC – one signed by 40 Republican members of Congress – complaining that the network's decision to air the forum along with accompanying coverage "gives the American people a slanted view" on the health care debate.

"The manner in which the news programming is being presented – at the White House with the President and First Lady and without opposition – is unprofessional and contrary to the journalistic code of ethics to present the news fairly and independently," the letter says. "This is not a Presidential news conference open to all news outlets. This is an exclusive arrangement from which the President and his viewpoints stand to gain."

(TV Newser, which covered the story here, has a PDF of the letter.)

ABC News president David Westin responded with a letter of his own in which he complains that "you have found it appropriate to criticize a program that has not yet aired."

"Contrary to your assertions, this will not be 'slanted' in any way – much less a 'day-long infomercial' or 'in-kind free advertising' as you allege," writes Westin. "It will be a thoughtful, respectful, and probing discussion of some of the issues raised by the calls for health-care reform. We will include a variety of perspectives coming from private individuals asking the President questions and taking issue with him, as they see fit."

"Sadly, some inside government and within the private sector see every issue as material for a sort of political high theatre, to be used to gain votes or energize political bases or simply to raise funds," Westin added. "I would have thought that a subject as important as the health care received by the American people would rise above this sorry spectacle."

In a press release announcing the event, ABC said the audience would be "made up of Americans selected by ABC News who have divergent opinions in this historic debate." It also noted that ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Timothy Johnson will be involved in the event. In its letter, The Media Fairness Caucus derided Johnson as biased and said his involvement, along with that of Linda Douglass, who once worked for ABC and now works in the Obama administration, "gives the appearance of a state-run television network."

Westin responded that he "entirely reject[s] your attack" on Johnson, whose "knowledge about health care reform is surpassed only by his commitment to the truth and to fairness." He also noted that Douglass left ABC almost four years ago. (There was a similar back and forth between ABC and the RNC last week.)

The tradition of presidents reaching out directly to the American people dates back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, which first took place in 1933. Roosevelt first used the radio chats, which were informal and sometimes began with the words "Good evening, friends," to win support for his New Deal initiatives to counter the Great Depression.

The practice began a tradition of regular communication between the president and the people, though the medium has evolved – President Obama's weekly addresses go out in Web videos as well as over the radio. To those, of course, Republicans can respond with an address of their own – an opportunity they won't have this evening.

ABC News media relations tells Hotsheet that the event this evening will air with commercials, and that the network is treating it as it does any typical hour of programming. The broadcast is unique but far from unprecedented: NBC recently ran a two-night special called "Inside The Obama White House" and CBS has built "60 Minutes" broadcasts around the president and members of his administration.

The ABC broadcast, however, is different in that it is build around a specific issue that is presently being hotly debated in Washington. As Westin rightly points out, it is impossible to know before the broadcast airs whether it will be "slanted." But the Republican letter is likely more about pressure than prognostication. Smith and his compatriots hope that their efforts will prompt the network to take pains to make sure the event is particularly confrontational. ABC News, like all media outlets, would never allow that outside pressure influences their journalism. But that hasn't stopped anyone from trying.

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