In Iran, the freedoms that have been stamped out by unelected, violence-prone clerics run the whole gamut: No freedom of worship, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no right to a fair trial, no freedom to field candidates of your choice, no right to have your votes actually counted, and, of course, no freedom of the press.Although we journalists are taught to believe this last right may be the most important, the truth is that they are all
important. It's also true that dictators often display a special fear of open communication, and in cracking down on the protests that greeted their latest fraudulent election, Iran's mullahs have tried mightily to jam the e-mailing- and Internet-based communications that has kept ordinary Iranians in touch with each other, and with the horrifying events taking place in their nation.
The tyrants met their match with Twitter, however, at least for awhile – earning the New Media a place in the history of democracy. Unfortunately for both the Iranian people and New Media practitioners, however, a well-intentioned but clumsy little stunt pulled by President Obama and his communications team this week served as a reminder that the urge to manipulate the news runs deep, even among small 'd" democrats – and large 'D' Democrats (and Republicans), too.
The facts aren't in dispute: Tuesday's 12:30 presidential press conference, originally scheduled for the Rose Garden, was moved indoors for some reason, leaving too many journalists vying for limited space in the overcrowded James Brady Briefing Room. Then, just before the newser began, reporters were surprised to see Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post escorted by a deputy White House press secretary through the throng to a place within eyesight of the presidential podium.
The HuffPost, it should be noted, is a reliably Obama-friendly outlet, one that tends to tilt its coverage – even to the point of taking sides (for Obama and against Hillary Clinton) in the Democratic primaries last year. That's certainly the right of Arianna Huffington, its founder and owner, although Huffington herself learned last year how powerful an urge it is to break news. One of her own pro-Obama "citizen bloggers" scooped everyone on the story of Obama's ill-considered remarks at a fundraiser about how Pennsylvanians cling to guns and God. Unless they were so partisan they couldn't see the big picture, even liberal champions of the New Media applauded.
In any event, after the first question of his Tuesday press conference, Obama startled the assembled horde, not by calling on HuffPo's correspondent, but the way he did so. Here is the exchange:
The President: "Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post..."
Pitney: "Thank you, Mr. President."
The President: "Nico, I know you and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?"
Pitney: "Yeah, I do. I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian. We solicited questions last night from people who were courageous enough to be communicating online, and one of them wanted to ask you this: 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?"
It was a good question – better than the answer, really – but that was not the point, or rather, it wasn't the only point. Here was Obama, in a press conference in which he finally found his voice on Iran, using the kind of ham-handed methods at media manipulation that leaders use in nations without a free press. To be sure, Obama wasn't really trying to pull a fast one – he read the stage directions aloud, for goodness' sakes – but in a polarized political environment in which journalists are forever being accused (by partisans whose side is not in power) of being in bed with the White House, this was the last thing the media, old or new, needed.
I'll confess that I didn't see this right away: Watching on television (the better to file a timely dispatch for you, dear readers), I focused instead on the substance of Obama's condemnation of the Iranians. My Politics Daily colleague Lynn Sweet, who also works for the Chicago Sun-Times, was in the briefing room, however, and she noticed it. Her thoughts will be posted shortly.
"Yesterday's daytime drama belonged primarily to Pitney, of the Huffington Post Web site. During the eight years of the Bush administration, liberal outlets such as the Huffington Post often accused the White House of planting questioners in news conferences to ask preplanned questions. But here was Obama fielding a preplanned question asked by a planted questioner -- from the Huffington Post."
Milbank was not alone. Veteran White House correspondent Peter Maer of CBS News also took exception to what had transpired, and at Wednesday's regular briefing by presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs, he asked Gibbs several pointed questions, including:
"Is this going to become a regular feature of President Obama's news conference, that you all are going to bring people in here that you select to ask questions?"
Here was Gibbs' response:
"Well ... let's be clear, Peter. I think you understand this, but I'll repeat it for your benefit: There was no guarantee that the questioner would be picked. There was no idea of what the exact question would be. I'll let you down easily: A number of questions that we went through in prep you all asked. Iran dominated the news conference, not surprisingly. But Peter, I think it was important and the president thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that."
Maer, taking another stab at it, asked a follow-up: "Aren't you and the president aware that this cast suspicion that all of such questions may be presidentially planted?"
That question might have given a more reflective press secretary pause. It only egged Gibbs on; he then went around the room asking other journalists Obama called on Tuesday if their questions were planted. Inexplicably, several of them played Gibbs' foil and answered negatively. Later, Maer's colleague Mark Knoller, also a longtime veteran of the White House briefing room observed drolly, "The White House says it didn't know what question Pitney would ask, which means the question might not have been planted, although the reporter clearly was." But Gibbs' needlessly belligerent disputation was mild compared to Arianna Huffington's condescending contribution to the debate.
"Lots of squawking going on in the media sandbox after President Obama called on HuffPost's Nico Pitney at today's press conference," she wrote. "Seems some of the boys can't seem to understand why the president would have the nerve to call on someone whose Iran coverage has been praised throughout the media, from Charlie Rose to Andrew Sullivan to the Economist. Politico's Michael Calderone couldn't seem to get over the order in which Nico was called on. 'It was a departure from White House protocol,' he fumed (the DC equivalent of 'I'm telling Mom!')."
So which side is right? Politics Daily is itself part of the New Media, but Melinda Henneberger, our editor-in-chief, is insistent on trying to incorporate some of the best values of the old media into the new, no-print digital world we inhabit. This is art, not science, however, and we have had our own growing pains. Moreover, opinions will differ, even among colleagues hired because they share Melinda's vision, as to what's appropriate and what isn't.
To Melinda and me, it seems upon reflection that both the White House and Nico Pitney erred, despite what they sincerely believe were high-minded intentions. Columbia Journalism Review
, a liberal leaning, but intellectually honest arbiter, agrees. Here is the end of CJR's examination of this episode:
"Imagine the outrage that would emanate from HuffPo if this bit of choreographed Q&A had occurred between President Bush and a blogger from, say, Little Green Footballs. Regardless, the issue here is
protocol, but it's not about who goes first. The problem is that Pitney asked a question that had been solicited by the White House. There's nothing wrong with the president wanting to take questions from actual Iranians, and Pitney's HuffPo platform was a good vehicle for getting the word out to Iranians. But the audience watching the presser wasn't made aware of any of this. Instead, it was led to believe that it was witnessing an organic, spontaneous exchange. White House press conferences are complicated affairs, where the balance between political theater and genuine journalism can be hard to distinguish ... '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,' Politico's Calderone wrote
yesterday. We'll go a step further. It's not just atypical. It's wrong. "
My views on this subject were forged during the Bush administration when I covered the White House for National Journal. One day, my colleague on the beat, Alexis Simendinger, asked the president about his plans for avian flu. Bush gave an answer that made news – I forget exactly what he said – but it was obvious that Bush had thought about the issue, or at least had been briefed on it. The president's failure to be stumped by the bird flu so enraged Bush-haters that they turned on Alexis, calling her various names in their blogs and academic papers, and asserting flatly that the question was a "plant." Alexis Simendinger is one of the toughest and best-prepared reporters I know, and her critics wouldn't know real journalism from their own private parts, so they can be easily dismissed. But it showed me the kind of mistrust that is out there and why it is so very important for White House reporters, especially, to keep some distance from the people we cover.
This wasn't an isolated instance. Here's another: While on one of his regular raves against Bush, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann once casually accused Bush of "planting" a question in the press corps. I remember one news outlet that reported on Olbermann's rant, and linked to it, without bothering to question the premise.
Yes, it was The Huffington Post.