Presidential Press Conferences, RIP?

Quite a kerfuffle has broken out in the blogs and on Twitter over President Obama’s calling on HuffPo’s Nico Pitney to ask a pre-screened question in yesterday’s press conference.  Politico’s Michael Calderone broke the story:

In what appeared to be a coordinated exchange, President Obama called on the Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney near the start of his press conference and requested a question directly about Iran.  “Nico, I know you and all across the Internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran,” Obama said, addressing Pitney.  “I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

Pitney, as if ignoring what Obama had just said, said: “I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.”  He then noted that the site had solicited questions from people in the country “who were still courageous enough to be communicating online.” “Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of the — of what the demonstrators there are working towards?”

Reporters typically don’t coordinate their questions for the president before press conferences, so it seemed odd that Obama might have an idea what the question would be. Also, it was a departure from White House protocol by calling on The Huffington Post second, in between the AP and Reuters.  CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller, a veteran White House correspondent, said over Twitter it was “very unusual that Obama called on Huffington Post second, appearing to know the issue the reporter would ask about.”

According to POLITICO’s Carol Lee, The Huffington Post reporter was brought out of lower press by deputy press secretary Josh Earnest and placed just inside the barricade for reporters a few minutes before the start of the press conference.

Here’s a video of the exchange:

HuffPo founder Ariana Huffington writes a characteristically snippy post defending Pitney and Obama, saying this is just a case of MSM reporters getting their noses out of joint at a mere blogger getting such prominent placement.  She also defends the site from charges that it is “left-leaning” and being used by the Obama administration in much the way its predecessors employed Fox News.

My concern in  this case is quite narrow.  I have no real problem with Pitney getting the spotlight.  Despite the fact that he’s a left-leaning activist by profession, he’s done exemplary journalism on Iran.  Nor do I particularly object to Obama’s using Pitney’s aggregation of Iranian responses as a jumping off point.  I am, however, worried about the precedent of a president pre-screening the questions at supposed press conferences.

Had Obama said, in his prepared remarks, something to the effect that “Nico Pitney of Huffington Post has done an extraordinary job of engaging Iranian public opinion and this question in particular deserves an answer,” I would be fine with it.  Instead, though, Obama essentially set up a canned question and gave the impression to a casual observer that it was a tough question from the floor.

If this is a one-off because of the unusual circumstances of in Iran, it’s not a big deal.  But journalists are right to insist that this sort of thing not become the norm.  If the White House is going to pre-select questions, they’re not “press conferences” at all; they’re one-act plays.  And reporters ought not participate in the sham.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    My thought on this is, didn’t Pitney make it well known on his blog that he had aggregated these questions and, if called upon, would ask one?

    Couldn’t this just be a case of an Obama staffer paying attention and giving the President a note prior saying “hey, if you call on this guy, he has this available/set to ask”?

    Isn’t that plausible?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Mark: I’m pretty sure that’s precisely what happened.

    Again, my problem is the precedent. What if that’s how all questions were chosen?

  3. DL says:

    Why would a community organizer of messianic stature not be expected to organize his propaganda sessions?
    At what point will the salivating press (save for one or two brave souls) command sufficient dignity to take this man to task for his arrogant destruction of our nation, under the guise of crisis, while playing his piper’s flute to the masses.
    The only reason the 1st amendment provides protection for the media is to provide objective information to the citizenry for their considerations and actions in running their nation. It doesn’t work when they are on the side of news manipulation and deceit and part and parcel of the agenda.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Er, James – If Mark is right, doesn’t that mean that there wasn’t coordination?

  5. PD Shaw says:

    The practice has grown to the degree that the Federal Trade Commission is paying attention. New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers for failure to disclose prior communications with the Office of the Presidency.

    The FTC explains that knowledge of the prior communication likely would affect the weight or credibility given the questions. Therefore, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose any relationship to the Office of the President and any prior communications related to the day’s questions.

  6. Mr. Grouchypants says:

    This is from a story by Dana Milbank:

    Pitney said the White House, though not aware of the question’s wording, asked him to come up with a question about Iran proposed by an Iranian. And, as it turned out, he was not the only prearranged questioner at yesterday’s show. Later, Obama passed over the usual suspects to call on Macarena Vidal of the Spanish-language EFE news agency. The White House called Vidal in advance to see whether she was coming and arranged for her to sit in a seat usually assigned to a financial trade publication. She asked about Chile and Colombia.

    If that’s true, then the Huffington Post coordination wasn’t a one-off.

  7. just me says:

    Propaganda is the real risk, when you get to prescreen the questions and handpick the reporters who ask them-especially when you try to pretend the pre screening didn’t occur.

    I hope it is a one off, but my gut tells me it won’t be-especially if the story about the Spanish language news agency is true.

  8. Steve says:

    I am, however, worried about the precedent of a president pre-screening the questions at supposed press conferences.

    The question wasn’t pre-screened. Obama knew it would be a question from an Iranian, but he did not know what the question was.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Er, James – If Mark is right, doesn’t that mean that there wasn’t coordination?

    If I’m understanding correctly:

    – Nico solicited questions Iranians would like to ask and posted some of the better ones

    – Obama’s team saw them and suggested that Nico be invited to ask one of said questions

    If that’s right, then I’d consider it coordination. But, again, it’s the pre-screening, not the “coordination,” that concerns me.

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    I believe it was Milbank who pointed out that not only will Americans lose trust in the American media but the world will as well. This is unacceptable. Will journalism professors across the country be raising this issue in class today? I doubt it. They’re on his side as well.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    If that’s right, then I’d consider it coordination. But, again, it’s the pre-screening, not the “coordination,” that concerns me.

    Is it really pre-screening if you don’t know what question is going to be asked?

  12. cian says:

    It seems Obama had no idea what the question might be, so I’m at a loss as to why James thinks it was prescreened. Nowhere in the article is such suggested, other than that the topic was known.

    Other than beltway noses being bent out of shape, where’s the beef?

  13. just me says:

    Well he knew the topic, and where it was coming from, and if the reporter being chosen is told to choose one from an Iranian and there are sample questions already on the website, i think the president and his advisors have a pretty good chance of doing some preparation compared to just calling on Joe Blow reporter.

    And this goes back to the idea that it smells. And the media already smells enough when it comes to Obama.

  14. Mr. Grouchypants says:

    According to Milbank, Pitney said that the White House didn’t know how the question would be worded. Maybe I’m overparsing it, but that doesn’t mean that the White House didn’t know what the question would be. It could just mean that they didn’t know exactly how the question would be worded.

    And is it really reasonable to assume that the White House would pre-screen a questioner if they had no idea what he or she would ask?

  15. Mike P says:

    Obama asked a question of one of the foreign correspondants who was there yesterday ahead of his meetings with the dignitary from that country. Now I doubt Obama knew the question that would be asked, but I would guess his press office knew what KIND of questions could be asked so he prepped for it.

    That situation and the one w/Pitney really aren’t that far off but people are pissed about the later and not so much about the former. Why? Is it because it’s HuffPo?

    James, I think your point is stronger if you would be able to factually state that the W.H. knew exactly what question might be asked. Besides, the question that was asked, in many ways, was similar to the one that Chuck Todd was pushing about “what’s next” if things continue to escalate, etc.

  16. LaurenceB says:

    I don’t get what all the fuss is about either.

    The President decided beforehand to call on some people, he made sure they were present, and he had a pretty good expectation of what their questions would be, though not the precise questions.

    OK. How’s that different from every other White House press conference?

  17. Steve Hynd says:

    James, Nico has said the WH didn’t know what the question would be. I’ve known Nico since his years with Raw Story – he’s as honest as yesterday (summer solstice) was long. That’s good enough for me.

    Regards, Steve

  18. Crust says:

    James, you seem to twice insist that the White House “pre-select[ed]” or “pre-screened” this question. But that’s just false. Yes, the questioner was pre-selected, but that’s very different from the question being pre-selected (as multiple comments already point out). This was not a planted question or even a softball. Obama very clearly did not know what the question was going to be otherwise he would have done a better job of answering it.

    Please correct the post.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Really! Who does Nico Pitney think he is!? Jeff Gannon

  20. Drew says:

    I was trying to remember the name. That’s right, Jeff Gannon. Pilloried by the MSM for being a “plant.”

    My how things have changed. You see, its “different” now, this is Obama.

    Yee who defend: slimy.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Obviously sarcasm is lost on you…

    Ye who correlate: disingenuous…

  22. Matt says:

    You know I have a hard time believing this was a pre-screened question. I have no doubt Obama knew that he would get an Iran related question when he called upon Pitney. The thing is if Obama had pre-screened the question his answer wouldn’t of been nearly as sad as the one he gave..

  23. Mike Ryan says:

    Is anybody surprised by collusion between the WH and a member of the press? remember Wolfe’s Obamaworship book? ABC Obamamercial on healthcare reform? Face it, journalism is dead.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    remember Wolfe’s Obamaworship book? ABC Obamamercial on healthcare reform?

    Or Fox News’s whoring for the GOP ever since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes created it…

  25. Yeah, or every other network pimping for democrats since the late eighties?

  26. An Interested Party says:

    Maybe Rupert Murdoch should buy another network…that should make you happy…