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.