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Has The Huffington Post Ruined Press Conferences Forever?

The facts, as we know them: Nico Pitney, an editor at the Huffington Post, has done a tremendous job aggregating information on the Iranian protest movement. Particularly innovative has been his effort to collect and publish perspectives emerging from within Iran. Pitney, in fact, asked the Iranians communicating with him him to submit questions that they'd like posed to the president. At some point before President Obama's Tuesday press conference, the White House reached out to Pitney and asked if he'd attend the conference and ask a question submitted by an actual Iranian of his choice.

Scandal! Shock!

I don't want to suggest that there's nothing weird about this scenario. Taking a query from an Iranian reformer was a method of communicating with the Iranian reform movement. It was a method of implicitly elevating and supporting them. It was as much a policy initiative as a messaging initiative, and Huffington Post ended up being part of that policy.

But the outrage seems to rely on a weird respect for the White House press conference -- a vision of them as some genuine vehicle of accountability where an aggressive and independent press corps can interrogate the president. But White House press conferences are contemptible! Reporters get one question, and then the president moves on, whether he has answered it or not. The assembled journalists frequently ask questions that are meant for entertainment (What has been most "enchanting" about the presidency? Do you smoke? What type of dog are you getting?), suggesting that they see this as political entertainment rather than an hour of accountability. Queries are phrased to maximize their possibility of making news rather than their possibility of eliciting an informative response. The whole thing is a fraud with moments of accidental usefulness.

In a world where press conferences were different, where reporters refused to attend if follow-ups were not allowed and every member of every outlet took the occasion as a rare moment to press the president on matters of national importance, I might be able to summon up some concern about the precedent set by Pitney's question. But in this world? At least that question was useful to somebody.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 24, 2009; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

I kind of expected a response like this from the usual suspects. Of course they don't seem to notice that the question Nico asked was actually an important one and a difficult one to answer, and Obama in fact dodged it. Why would Obama plant a question for himself that he wants to avoid answering? Nonsense. Also, several of the "real" journalists in the room repeated the question in different terms. So obviously Obama's critics liked the question--they just appear to be jealous that a liberal blogger beat them to it.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | June 24, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

nico pitney has been doing a very outstanding job covering the events in iran, from the very beginning.
in fact, in the first few days, information was very scarce in the mainstream media, with all of their resources, but nico pitney has been doing a wonderful job, right from the outset.
i think he was especially helpful in relating the necessity for twitter to be maintained when they were considering going off to attend to technical maintenance.
his work has been a real service to everyone.
the real scandal in the news conference was twofold.
the insolence of some of the questioners...
i was really glad when obama said he didnt run the country on a 24 hour news cycle, and when obama reminded the journalists that in fact, he is the president.
in their arrogance, they seem to lose all sense of dignity when they ask him a question.
and the waste of precous time during a conference ,asking questions about obama's smoking habits.
if a journalist cant ask a more important question at this time, they shouldnt be given the privilege of asking a question at all.

Posted by: jkaren | June 24, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

You should probably go over to Dana Milbank's desk and slap him.

That, or at least tell him to correct his damn column.

Posted by: weebot | June 24, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Spot-on takedown of these White House press conferences. Over lunch today, a colleague and I pretty much made every point here, including especially the media's supine tolerance of the no follow-up rule. I'm all for the boycott. Things have only gotten worse with the new Administration, given that the President himself is more able in this situation and that turnover within the press room has left him mostly dealing with very inexperienced and ineffective journalists.

That the President yesterday was able, without objection, to pretend that it was somehow impertinent to note that he had failed to answer a question with that "what are you, the press room ombudsman" quip--as if that would be a bad thing--was all one needs to see of these.

Posted by: FrBill1 | June 24, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what they're complaining about. At most of these press conferences apparently, they follow a protocol where who gets to ask a question and in what order is already worked out.

How is Pitney any different - other than the fact that the place where he works isn't (yet) part of the MSM?

Posted by: leoklein | June 24, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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