So, Nico Pitney has been doing fantastic work reporting on the situation in Iran, and the question he asked Barack Obama at today’s presser was certainly a far cry from a Jeff Gannon-style softball. Even so, it was clear at the time—and Pitney has apparently confirmed—that it was coordinated in a broad sense: The White House called up and invited Pitney to pass on a question from one of his Iranian correspondents (though not any particular question), and then in calling on him, Obama specifically solicited a “question from Iran.” It’s great to see a solid reporter get recognition, it’s great to see an online news outlet called on second in the Q&A, but look, we all know it’s not supposed to work like this. Public figures and journalists don’t powwow in advance to figure out who’s going to get to pose questions, and what they’re going to concern. 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.
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.
Addendum II: I’m a huge admirer of Marcy Wheeler’s, but she seems to deliberately misunderstand the issue in the course of a post attacking Michael Calderone for “bitching” that HuffPo got called on. The outlet is irrelevant, except insofar as a publication the president might not be expected to field questions from may be more inclined to regard it as a favor when he does. Again, to Pitney’s credit, he did not shy from making his first question a tough one. But neither does his own account eliminate my qualms:
A few words about how this came about for those who are curious: as readers know, I’ve spent a lot of time writing and debating about the President’s reaction to the events in Iran. 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).
Saavy presidents since Kennedy have used selective access to try to shape coverage, but I worry that one potential downside to a spectacular explosion of national media outlets is enhaced “competition” for that access—which is to say, competition for presidential favor—than you get in more stable and frankly oligopolistic media markets. Call this a special case of a more general worry that professional norms are the oligopolist’s luxury…