One Question To Obama, One Heck Of A Backlash

President Obama at his Tuesday news conference. i i

President Obama's exchange with Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney at Tuesday's news conference has been criticized by some in the traditional media. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
President Obama at his Tuesday news conference.

President Obama's exchange with Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney at Tuesday's news conference has been criticized by some in the traditional media.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

A journalistic debate erupted Wednesday in the White House press corps over a question blogger Nico Pitney asked of President Obama at Tuesday's news conference. The debate wasn't about the question itself, but over how Pitney had the chance to ask it at all.

Pitney is a liberal blogger for The Huffington Post, who has won much acclaim recently for seeking out news from inside Iran despite intense restrictions on reporting there. His blog provides a steady stream of links to video and photographs from inside Iran and it also relays eyewitness accounts of the upheaval.

On Monday night, Pitney asked readers — especially Iranians — what questions Obama should be asked about Iran. A White House aide who read the posting contacted Pitney a little more than an hour later to tell him that if his appeal yielded a strong question, he might get a chance to pose it directly to the president.

"Once I heard that, I decided to really try and canvass as best I could to find as many questions as possible," Pitney told NPR.

Question To The President

His query whipped around the Web, especially on Twitter, and was also translated into Farsi and posted on a Persian language social media site called Balatarin.

Here's the question Pitney asked, suggested by an Iranian who works in the Internet trade in Iran:

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 what the demonstrators there are working to achieve?

On Tuesday morning, a White House aide urged Pitney to attend the news conference, and the blogger was whisked into the packed press room. After answering the first question, from The Associated Press' White House reporter, Obama paused.

"Nico, I know that you and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran," Obama said. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?"

Criticism

That seemed too orchestrated for some White House reporters from more conventional news outlets. During Wednesday's press briefing, they challenged White House spokesman Robert Gibbs over Pitney's moment.

Obama was "sort of reading his script, and then Pitney basically read his line of the script back — it struck a lot of people there as very odd," said Dana Milbank of The Washington Post.

Milbank says he admires Pitney's recent work and even liked the question, but he adds that the collusion between the administration and the young journalist damages the press' independence. He says the real issue is the White House's ability to determine what questions officials will have to field from different journalists.

Milbank raised similar questions about apparent collusion during the Bush administration when a pro-Republican blogger who wrote under the name Jeff Gannon showed up routinely in the White House press room and was allowed to ask questions that took a clearly conservative line.

"It's more the question of the White House saying, 'Hey, you from The Washington Post, you're going to ask about health care. Hey, you from CBS News, you're going to ask about Iraq,' " Milbank says. "We just bristle at such attempts at stage managing."

Pitney says that's ridiculous. He says he was never asked what question he would pose, if called on — and wouldn't have disclosed it to White House aides if asked. He says journalists from mainstream news outlets are fixated on sideshow matters.

"Substantive issues, like whether someone is helped into the press room to find a place to stand, seems to be of great interest to the press corps," he says.

White House Courtesy

Olivier Knox of Agence France-Press covered the White House of President George W. Bush. He says he understands Milbank's concerns, but he argues that Pitney wasn't compromised.

Here's the big secret, Knox says: The White House gives reporters a heads-up in advance of news conferences fairly frequently.

"I can tell you that during the Bush administration I was occasionally told I would get a question," Knox says.

He says it was a courtesy to ensure that Pitney was there instead of monitoring on TV while composing a story on his computer. And he never doubted that aides to then-President Bush, or President Obama, could anticipate what questions he might pose.

But Knox added, "they never knew, and never asked, what question I was asking."

Pitney says it's true that he's part of the shifting media landscape, but the blogger says he prizes his independence as much as any of his more established rivals.

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