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The Velvet Underground Revolution & Nico

June 23rd, 2009 · 9 Comments

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…

Tags: Journalism & the Media



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan Summers // Jun 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I have to respectfully disagree. Obviously, it’s important that the White House not make a policy of choreographing press conferences, but I don’t see precisely what was wrong with soliciting a specific category of question from a reporter who could plausibly be expected to deliver it. It seems to me that your objection is that this could be some kind of precedent. Assuming that it is an isolated situation, I don’t see it as objectionable.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jun 23, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I see it as objectionable—as being worth objecting to—precisely because I want to be sure it IS an isolated situation. You refuse offers like this to reinforce the norm that journalists don’t negotiate their questions—we don’t have enough resolution on the back-end of the journalistic process to be able to afford anything but a strong bright line.

    Look, I could probably accept a gift from an executive at a company I report on without it skewing my coverage. But I don’t try to predict on a case by case basis what the psychological effect will be; I just observe the rule “journalists don’t take gifts from people they report on.” If the norm collapses to the point where we’re trying to assess how “objectionable” each particular instance is, we’re already screwed.

  • 3 Doug // Jun 23, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Nice work on the post title.

  • 4 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Jun 23, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Is it possible to look at this as the Obama White House sort of inviting an Iranian to ask a question by proxy?

  • 5 Dan Summers // Jun 23, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    That was my take on things, Neil. (That is, by the way, just about the best moniker I have yet seen on teh Internets.)

  • 6 southpaw // Jun 23, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Sorry Julian, but I find this laughably absurd.

    “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.”

    Oh really. What’s this then?

    The White House Correspondents’ Association was born on Feb. 25, 1914, after the White House let it be known that President Woodrow Wilson was interested in having an unprecedented series of regularly scheduled press conferences but was unsure how to pick the reporters to invite to these sessions. To the horror of regular White House reporters, a rumor leaked that the Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents would be asked to do the picking.

    Aghast at this intrusion on their turf, eleven reporters formed the WHCA, decreeing that its “primary object shall be the promotion of the interests of those reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House.”

    The leak proved unfounded, so the reporters dropped their guard. The WHCA lay dormant until 1920 when the organization held its first dinner. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge became the first of 14 presidents to attend the dinner.

    Until World War II, the annual dinner was an entertainment extravaganza, featuring singing between courses, a homemade movie and an hour-long, post-dinner show with big-name performers. During the War years the dinner tradition continued, but the event was more subdued. A 1944 article in the Charlotte Observe reported: “The most complete turnout of the Nation’s war leaders since Pearl Harbor ate unrationed duck and traded off-the-record political wisecracks with the Capital’s press last night at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. President Roosevelt, attending the only party outside the White House that he allows himself in wartime, sang loud when the entertainers called for audience participation, and laughed louder at some of the fourth term jokes which flew thick all evening.”

    No, you’re right, they never powwow. If there’s one thing an establishment journalist will never do, it’s knowingly rub shoulders with the elites or compromise for the sake of access.

  • 7 Nico, Nico, Nico… « Around The Sphere // Jun 24, 2009 at 10:23 am

    […] Julian Sanchez and Around The Sphere think alike in our VU references! Anyway, Sanchez: So, Nico Pitney has been […]

  • 8 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Jun 24, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks, Dan! It’s served me well, and gives me a good excuse for making animal noises in polite company.

  • 9 Weekly Web Watch 06/22/09 – 06/28/09 « EXECUTIVE WATCH // Jun 28, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    […] At his first daytime press conference, Obama called on Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post to deliver the first question.  As it turns out, the administration had spoken with Pitney about this idea beforehand (though they did not specify the exact question to be asked).  Michael Calderone has some thoughts and the video.  Marcy Wheeler thinks that this is a non-issue and an innovative way for the White House to get questions from Iran.  Julian Sanchez doesn’t argue with that, but does have concerns about the White House coordinating questions with the press corps. […]