Planted Questions

Calling foul on HuffPo’s press-conference deal with Obama

Yesterday’s presidential presser added another installment to the Annals of Questions That Make News. Last April, it was Jeff Zeleny’s multipart question that made waves. This time around, The Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney did the honors, with a question that was essentially requested by the White House itself.

This is how the exchange between President Obama and Pitney went down:

Obama: Since we’re on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post.

Pitney: Thank you, Mr. President.

Obama: 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?

Many political observers caught onto the unusual nature of the question as soon as it happened; Politico’s Michael Calderone said that it “appeared to be a coordinated exchange.” And Howard Kurtz wrote that “in the strangest bit of orchestration I can recall at one of these events, the White House arranged for a Huffington Post reporter to ask a preordained question, and did nothing to hide it.”

So, “strange” and “coordinated” as it seemed, here’s how it came to be. Pitney has been live-blogging the Iranian protests since the election, and according to Pitney, the White House noticed:

Last night, after emailing with a few people about Obama’s press conference and what he might say, I decided to throw it open to our readers. I received a call from White House staff saying they had seen what I’d written and thought the President might be interested in receiving a question directly from an Iranian.

The White House didn’t guarantee that I would be able to ask a question. But I decided that if there was even a chance, I should try to reach out to as many Iranians as possible. With the invaluable help from some readers — Chas, Chuck, and other Iranian Americans I wish I could name because they deserve the credit — I was able to post a message in Farsi on Twitter and have my request for questions posted late last night on Balatarin. I ended up choosing the question I did because it was one of the consensus questions that many people had suggested.

Thanks also to the White House staff. They were up front about not being able to assure that a question would be asked, they never asked what the question would be, and they helped me move through the very packed briefing room when I showed up a bit late (sorry to the many toes I stepped on getting through).

Media watchers noted the unusual circumstances, but haven’t said exactly whether what Pitney and HuffPo did was a journalistic no-no, and if so, why—allowing Arianna Huffington to rail defensively in the Name of New Media.

Lots of squawking going on in the media sandbox after President Obama called on HuffPost’s Nico Pitney at today’s press conference.

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!”).

(Imagine the outrage that would emanate from HuffPo if this bit of choreographed Q-and-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. But in this moment when journalistic standards are under assault (see, for instance, Chris Anderson’s tortured explanation of how he came to plagiarize multiple passages in his new book), it seems important to draw some lines.

“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.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.