6.23.2009

Squinting at the bright lines

Julian Sanchez raises an objection to a question that the President took at his press conference earlier today. The question came from Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post, who has been doing amazing work collecting and reporting on the situation in Iran as it has unfolded. (As much as I may dislike HuffPo in general, I have to give it proper credit for the reportage Pitney has been providing.) While it is now clear that the President Obama specifically called on Pitney as a conduit for a question on behalf of Iranians, the question itself wasn't vetted and wasn't a soft-ball:
"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?"
Sanchez cries foul:
It’s a credit to Pitney that he still posed a tough question, but it seems fairly clear-cut to me that he should have rebuffed any effort to prearrange a question, even in this very broad and loose sense. It’s harmful to reporters’ independence and sets up some toxic incentives. The White House shouldn’t be trying to stage manage this way, and bloggers shouldn’t accept it when they do—however flattered they might be at being treated on par with the legacy media.
In a response to a comment I made, he added this:
Addendum: A commenter suggests that it’s not “objectionable” so long as it’s an “isolated” instance. The way you keep it isolated is by objecting. The harm here is a funtion of psychological effects as much as any conscious quid pro quo—which is a risk reporters will systematically underrate if they’re making case-by-case judgment calls. Sometimes we need bright lines.
I agree with what he is saying in principle. When the press colludes with the White House to stage manage its coverage, it compromises its integrity and diminishes its function. I concede that. However, it appears that the question from Pitney was coordinated in the very loosest sense, and occured for a specific and (in my opinion) laudable purpose, which would have been otherwise difficult to accomplish.

So, I would move this particular interaction between President and press from the brightly delineated "should not have happened" category to the much less tidy "is OK in a few very rare instances, and should not become a habit" bin. I think that Sanchez (and Michael Calderone) serve a valuable purpose by raising their objections (though Calderone's sniffing about HuffPo being called on before the reporter from Reuters seems a bit persnickety for my taste), but this time it seems to pass the sniff test.

5 comments:

  1. AIUI, the question came from an Iranian blogger, and Pitney was the proxy. Given that, and that the question was a serious one, I'm with Dan in giving this a pass. Had the question been along the customary "which flavor ice cream do you prefer, and how awesome is it that you had sprinkles?" that seem to be de rigueur among reporters these days, well, that would be stage managing.

    I'm in favor of any system that puts more hardball questions in play and cuts down on Mr.Obama's daily tonguebath from the MSM.

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  2. look, the White House already can stage manage the questions by their choice of the questioners. Obama can never know the question itself but depending on the world situation he can at least anticipate what the questions will be about. And, of course, if Obama wanted to change the topic he could have called a reporter whose speciality is health issues thereby giving the likelihood the question would be about health care and not something else. Obviously most of the questions were going to be about Iran so I can not possibly see the harm in assuring that an actual Iranian could be represented in some form.

    Anyway, there is already a kind of defacto stage managing by the Press and the White House by their mutual agreeing as to who gets accredited and who doesn't. And who is the press? well the organizations with the most money, but generally I don't consider Fox or MSNBC news organizations at all, just news entertainment shows. To pretend there are bright lines is just silliness, and evidenced by how many stupid questions there were I have to say that this "staged" question was one of the best.

    Obviously, planting a DNC staffer as a reporter would be grossly inethical, but to pretend this is on par with it is ridiculous.

    charo

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  3. The WH *is* stage managing by choosing questioners. Haven't you watched he President's press conferences? I've seen him refer to his notes before calling on a questioner, and he doesn't even know where the reporter is sitting! Reports have written about this as well.

    The sooner the press stop letting the President just eat his waffle and start asking tough questions, the better off the United States and its citizens will be.

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  4. John, Pitney asked a tough question.

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  5. Yes, Dan, I said as much in my earlier response. To charo's point, however, Mr. Obama does choose questioners in advance, and has been doing so for some time now. That might partially explain why he's been asked questions like "just how super awesome was it that your Cairo speech led to the US soccer team beating Spain?" Feh.

    We'll see if Mr. HuffPo is still on the Planned Questioner's List after this little escapade.

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