More PitneyGate Fallout?

Press focused on who asked questions at Obama town hall

We may, thankfully, be putting Pitneygate behind us. But reading through press coverage of President Obama’s town hall meeting on health care reform yesterday, one could be forgiven for thinking that the episode is still weighing on the minds of the Washington press corps.

Nico Pitney, of course, is the national editor of The Huffington Post, who made something of a stir in the political journalism world when the White House, impressed by his coverage of the recent events in Iran, invited him to ask Obama a question solicited from an Iranian. In certain circles, a meme quickly developed: Obama was rewarding sympathetic press outlets with access and visibility, and using them to maintain his message. A counter-meme about the lazy, corrupt MSM developed just as quickly. Before it was over, parody T-shirts had been created.

Cut to yesterday’s press conference, which despite the presence of the president and the importance of the topic seems not to have made much news. Faced with this situation, reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post spent a lot of time focusing on who got to ask questions. Here’s Jeff Zeleny of the Times:

The president ultimately took seven questions, including four that had been selected by aides who waded through hundreds of videos submitted through the White House Web site. (One, though, came from a Republican congressman from Texas asking about medical malpractice.) Three questions were from members of the audience, all of whom were associated with groups close to the Democratic Party.

And, after describing the president’s encounter with a cancer victim who asked one of those three questions:

As she spoke to reporters later, Ms. Smith said she was active in Organizing for America, a Democratic group that grew out of the Obama campaign. The White House said it was a coincidence that the president called on her. He did not seem to know her because after he extended a hug, he said awkwardly, “What was your name again?”

And here is Michael D. Shear and Jose Antonio Vargas of the Post:

In the stage-managed event, questions for Obama came from a live audience selected by the White House and the college, and from Internet questions chosen by the administration’s new-media team. Of the seven questions the president answered, four were selected by his staff from videos submitted to the White House Web site or from those responding to a request for “tweets.”

The president called randomly on three audience members. All turned out to be members of groups with close ties to his administration: the Service Employees International Union, Health Care for America Now, and Organizing for America, which is a part of the Democratic National Committee. White House officials said that was a coincidence.

The Post also notes, regarding one of the pre-selected queries, that “Obama was ready for the question,” and launched into a lengthy response. In this case, though, that doesn’t seem surprising: the question was about why the president doesn’t support a single-payer system, a topic any well-informed citizen would have had on his or her short list.

It’s certainly possible that these stories would have been written the same way if the Pitney flap hadn’t happened. Emphasizing the artifice of a non-event is a classic response of the journalist assigned to cover it (although as political non-events go, this one was pretty virtuous). So we shouldn’t leap too quickly to cause-and-effect. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how long this narrative persists.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.