U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s stroke—if that’s what it was—has raised questions about his office’s public-information policies.
Reid experienced dizziness on Aug. 16 at his hometown of Searchlight and was taken to Las Vegas for treatment. His staff members failed to disclose these events to the public on that day, a Tuesday. Nor did they reveal them on Wednesday or Thursday.
And when they did announce the news, it was late in the day on Friday and only to select news outlets. The news release wasn’t posted on Reid’s senate Web page list of news releases that day.
In its entirety, the release said: “LAS VEGAS, NV: After experiencing light headedness on Tuesday evening, Sen. Reid, at the urging of his wife, Landra, sought medical attention and learned he had experienced a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). Senator Reid feels fine. There are no complications or any restrictions on his activities. He has undergone evaluations this week, and his doctors have recommended that he take advantage of the summer congressional recess for some down time.”
Since the short statement contained so little information, journalists frantically sought out Reid’s staff members. They learned Reid’s staff members were difficult to locate that Friday evening. At one Washington radio bureau, a news producer was unable to find anyone on Reid’s staff in order to get more information.
In Nevada, one reporter said she made more than a hundred calls without locating a Reid spokesperson. Some national news outlets turned to experts on strokes who, however, had no knowledge of Sen. Reid’s particular case.
Sen. Reid was not available for comment. His aide Tessa Hafen was quoted by the Associated Press on Aug. 20 saying, “The reason [for the delay] was the tests and the evaluations that they were doing. We wanted to make sure what we were announcing. You need conclusive information.”
She did not explain why “conclusive” information was needed to announce that Reid had experienced dizziness and seen a doctor.
The secrecy created a hothouse of rumor and led to confusion and conflicting reports. Some news outlets said Reid had a stroke. Others, such as the New York Times, said he didn’t. (The Times called it a “neurological dysfunction … that can be a sign of an impending stroke.") Some called it a “mini stroke,” others stuck with “dizziness.”
KOLO general manager Matt James, a former news director at both KOLO and KTVN, says he has often seen such political news policies while heading news operations in other states.
“They wait until everybody’s gone for the weekend. … I think that’s kind of a horsecrap way of doing business, but I also suspect that it was probably at his express orders. … In terms of the public, I think the public has a right to know about the health status … of the people that they’ve elected to serve them. But I’ve encountered that so many times with Washington types.”
But James says most congressional offices wouldn’t risk such a long period of concealment.
“It’s really unusual that they would drag it out that long. Usually, if it’s before Thursday, they won’t try to play that card.”
University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor Jake Highton said the secrecy smacked of the mythological 1940 Nevada incident when U.S. Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada allegedly died before the election and his aides kept his body in a bathtub filled with ice until after he was safely reelected and the Democratic governor could appoint his replacement. The lurid aspects of the Pittman tale have been debunked by a historian and mortuary records, but Pittman was in fact at Washoe General Hospital before the election, he was seriously ill, and his condition was concealed from the public.
“I think that’s certainly a very bad policy, whether he’s fatal or not, whether it’s critical or not,” Highton said of Reid. “Hey, he’s a public figure, public official. And by God, the press should be informed about that. … It’s too important.”
Highton compared the secrecy with the Bush administration’s policies.
“Sometimes [members of] the Bush administration—I guess all administrations—haven’t really learned that. They operate in secrecy.”
In fact, Reid is a critic of those Bush policies. One news release that was placed on Reid’s Web page in a timely fashion was posted there three days after the senator’s attack and hospitalization was disclosed. The news release reported Reid criticism of George Bush: “From Iraq to Veterans, President Fails to Level with the American People.”