By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Share your thoughts on Obama’s presser

Friend of Media Nation Jon Keller has written a post at in which he endorses Dana Milbank’s account in the Washington Post of President Obama’s “prepackaged entertainment” at Tuesday’s White House news conference.

As you may already know, Obama called on Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, saying, “I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

I don’t want to provide too much set-up before turning this over to you, but here is what Pitney wrote for HuffPo about what happened. Pitney says that though he was invited to prepare a question based what Iranians had been talking about online, no one at the White House knew what he was going to ask; and that though he was, indeed, escorted into the briefing room, he had been told ahead of time that there was no guarantee he’d be called on.

Now, I have two questions for you, which I want you to answer only after reading Keller, Milbank and Pitney.

1. If you relied solely on Milbank’s account, would it be your understanding that Obama knew what Pitney’s question would be?

2. Since, according to Pitney, Obama neither knew the question nor had promised to call on him, did either the president or his press operation do anything wrong, unethical or even disrespectful to the other reporters in the room?

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  1. Bill Baar

    I can't imagine this is the first time an American President set up a question but the delivery seemed pretty clunky. And then to have Rahm giving a chesire cat's grin on the side seemed really stupid.This all looks awfully amaturish on a awfully grave topic.Obama could have picked his own questions from Iranians from the White House email and answered directly……this just looked plain dumb.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: Please try answering my questions, especially the first.

  3. Bill Baar

    If you relied solely on Milbank's account…It tells me Obama didn't care what was asked save it would be a question purported to be from an Iranian.That's all the Prez wanted and that would give him the opening to say what he wanted.That's what they tell you in Press Handeling 101 right? Smile when asked the question, then answer the question you want asked. The answer need to match the question but few care and I got that from Milbank here.I think Obama just wanted someone to give him a context. I don't think there is anything wrong with this either, except it's so slick, you slip and look like a fool.Better Obama just opened with I've been reading Iranians on the net. I want to say this…make sense?

  4. O-FISH-L

    1) Even if Obama didn't know what the exact phrasing of the question would be, he knew it would be about the current situation in Iran, in all likelihood from someone opposed to Ahmadinejad, so how many possibilities does that leave? It would be like saying a month ago that David Ortiz would take a blogged question from a fan but nobody told him in advance that the question would be about his hitting. Spare us.2)As to whether Obama knew the question in advance, see above. As for the lack of a promise that Pitney would be picked, that was rendered moot when he was, in fact, escorted into the room then (can you believe it!) called upon. If, as Millbank writes, "The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn't as free as advertised," then yes, Obama conspiring with the HuffPo is wrong and unethical. It's also disrespectful to BOTH the press and the public who expect these things to be on the level.President George W. Bush was often criticized for holding too few press conferences, but the question now arises as to which is worse. No press conferences, or no legitimate press conferences?

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Fish and Bill: Theoretical question from Nico: "Mr. President, I have a plea posted on the Internet from an Iranian. He writes, 'We're being slaughtered in the streets, yet Obama says nothing. He is as phony as past U.S. leaders.' What is your response?"Given that, I'm not sure how you can say that it made no difference whether Obama knew the question in advance. Comment?

  6. O'Reilly

    The president had arranged some prepackaged entertainment for them.NOT NEWS, ENTERTAINMENTAfter the obligatory first question from the Associated Press, Obama treated the overflowing White House briefing room to a surprise. "I know Nico Pitney is here from the Huffington Post," he announced.SNARK – SURPRISEObama knew this because White House aides had called Pitney the day before to invite him, and they had escorted him into the room. They told him the president was likely to call on him, with the understanding that he would ask a question about Iran that had been submitted online by an Iranian. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet," Obama went on. "Do you have a question?"PRE-ARRANGED QUESTIONER (TO BE CONFUSED WITH PRE-ARRANGED QUESTION)Pitney recognized his prompt. "That's right," he said, standing in the aisle and wearing a temporary White House press pass. "I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian."Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.MILBANK IS WRONG. IT WAS A PRE-ARRANGED QUESTIONER, NOT A PRE-ARRANGED QUESTION. (FWIF, NICO PITNEY HAS OUT SCOOPED, CNN, ABC, NBC ON IRAN ELECTION COVERAGE.)The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn't as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn't so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, "The Obama Show."BACK TO QUESTIONERS VERSUS QUESTIONS MILBANK WANTS TO HAVE IT BOTH WAYS WHEN THEY'RE NOT HE SAME.WHY DOESN:T MILBANK SAY IT? GO BACK TO YOUR MOM'S BASEMENT AND EAT CHEETOH'S DFH BLOGGER.

  7. Michael Pahre

    Dana Milbank's editor should've slapped him in the face a few times when he saw the first draft of that column.Milbank deliberately and repeatedly blurred the line between question and questioner with his incorrect assessment of it as a "prepackaged Huffington Post question" and the process as "planting questioners in news conferences to ask preplanned questions."It was not a prepackaged question; it appears to have been a plan likely (but not certainly) to call on a particular questioner.There is nothing unusual about a president planning out in advance who he would call upon. Reagan did it, and I think every president since him did it, too. In fact, everyone knows that every president in the last half a century has planned to call on the same UPI reporter in every press conference, even though that reporter has long since passed her prime in phrasing a coherent question.The press secretary will often even know what questions each reporter is likely to ask — not because they are pre-screened, but because the press secretary was fielding questions and requests for information from the reporter in the day(s) prior to the conference. The secretary is effectively tipped off to the topic a given reporter would ask about, while not knowing the exact question.As long as the president didn't know in advance the question itself, then nothing is wrong.What instead is going on is that the Obama administration is vigorously trying to expand the White House press corps by inviting in non-traditional questioners. Some people might think that only ABC/CBS/NBC (and maybe some cable news outlets) along with Times and Post should be allowed into the room.I think most people, however, would appreciate how Obama's White House is trying to include foreign reporters as well as new media. Doing so will sometimes be uncomfortable to MSM types like Milbank.On a related topic, I think Milbank's column is the first shot across the bow from a WH press corps that was summarily humiliated by Obama throughout the press conference. Reporter after reporter was dressed down, corrected, put in their place, and, yes, even b$#%h-slapped. (My wife and I watched it together last night and agreed upon this terminology referring to the [male] reporters.) I think that afterwards there were a lot of reporters sporting bright red faces. They were beaten resoundingly by a quick and bright president.

  8. O-FISH-L

    First off Dan, I think Pitney was selected to ask the question (and delivered as promised) because everyone knows someone from HuffPo wouldn't ask Obama a provocative question like your theoretical. In that regard, Obama handpicked a friendly questioner who had handpicked a friendly question. Neither Pitney nor the White House would have gone through these acrobatics if there was any notion that a question such as yours would slip through. Even if Pitney had asked a tough question though, I think Bill Baar has it right, "Answer the question you want asked."The last few lines (see below) of Obama's response to Pitney's question would also seem to reasonably answer yours Dan, perhaps with a few Clintonesque, "I feel your pain" lip-biters thrown in.—Obama: "What we can do is to say, unequivocally, that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with the peaceful dissent, that — that spans cultures, spans borders." "And what we've been seeing over the Internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles." "I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that — that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it."

  9. O'Reilly

    The question Pitney asked— whether the U.S. would ever accept the election results and whether that would be tantamount to a betrayal of the protest movement— was no softball. And while the President edged around the question, saying that with no observers on the ground and little transparency it is impossible to tell what the result of the election truly would have been, he strongly condemned the violence of Iran's ruling regime and sided with the Iranian people's right to peaceful, unmolested protest.

  10. meamoeba

    if you relied solely on milbank's account, you'd think axelrod was feeding the question to nico. what he fails to mention is huffpost had been soliciting questions on the WORLD WIDE WEB (emphasis added esp. on WORLD WIDE) to ask at the presser so if anyone on obama's staff, including interns, did not know what was going to be asked in general, they should find other press conference, from backbench state rep to president, is without orchestration. anyone covering such events can tell you the chances of getting even a nugget of news is the same as finding a nugget of gold. and anyone at the podium who does not know his questioners penchants and interests and therefore the general tack of the quesitons is being underserved by his for milbank and keller, they both have backgrounds that cannot be overlooked. milbank has a history of obama bait and hate going back to prior to the election. nothing wrong with that in general but remember, he is no longer a reporter covering the white house or congress for wsj; he is a columnist and has a bent and a right to say it. he uses all the necessary code words to get his point across about his version of events, including his version of the breathless smoking question from the panting mclatchey reporter. which is different from how the nyt describes the irritated response from for keller, he is the father of a gop spokesman who asked for questions via email. how is that different from knowing ahead of time what questions will be asked at a presidential presser? did jon opine on that? say what you want about keller's objectivity, which you likely will because he's a friend and no problem with that, but it should be out there for all to measure. he's not as sterile an observer as one would like to think.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    meamoebe: I consider Jon to be an opinion journalist, as I am: not objective, but not partisan. He's more conservative than I am, obviously. I'm not sure what his adult son does for a living has to do with anything.

  12. meamoeba

    dan, my comment is, as jon says in his post, "appropriately skeptical." his son's position is as germane as jon's pondering about plants in the abc town meeting on health care and his dismissive phrasing comparing it to accusations against the bush administration. if he can conjecture (is that an appropriate verb?) then i can don the cynic's hat as well. and i'd argue familial bonds are far more influential than ideological ones.i respect your opinion and jon's right to one. i just think if you're going to toss pasta on the wall, you (jon and milbank) best watch out for a few pieces of ziti flying your way.

  13. zadig

    If you relied solely on Milbank's account, you'd think he had a serious axe to grind with the Obama admin. He makes it sound as if there's a vast conspiracy, but even still fails to offer vital information about the story that would let the reader maker up his/her mind (such as "what was the question that Nico asked?")In reality (question 2) nothing improper was done, although it smacks of the same kind of cheap manipulation the Bushies always pulled (remember when former male prostitute Jeff Gannon/James Guckert lobbed softballs at Bush?). Of course, Nico is a real journalist, isn't using an alias, and hasn't (as far as I know) ever turned tricks, so perhaps it's different.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Zadig: I think one big difference that few have picked up on is that Obama described precisely what was going on. It's not as though Milbank had to do any digging. In fact, he seems not to have roused himself sufficiently even to find out whether Obama knew the specific question Pitney would ask. He just assumed Obama knew, when, according to Pitney, he didn't. That's my read of it anyway.I think Milbank has long epitomized the sort of liberal, insider journalist who launches disingenuous snark-attacks on liberal politicians in order to prove he's not biased. Here's something I wrote for the Guardian about Milbank last fall.

  15. b.f.

    In the interest of full disclosure, it should also be noted that the questioner, N. Pitney, is the former Director of Research for the politically partisan Democratic Party-oriented think-tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), that the Co-chair of the Obama Administration's Transition team, John Podesta, headed. According to CAP's website:"John Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. Under his leadership, the Center has become a notable leader in the development and advocacy for progressive policy."Prior to founding the Center in 2003, Podesta served as White House Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton. He served in the president's cabinet and as a principal on the National Security Council. While in the White House, he also served as both an assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff, as well as staff secretary and a senior policy advisor on government information, privacy, telecommunications security, and regulatory policy."Most recently, Podesta served as co-chair of President Obama’s transition, where he coordinated the priorities of the incoming administration’s agenda, oversaw the development of its policies, and spearheaded its appointments of major cabinet secretaries and political appointees."So it seems somewhat misleading to characterize N. Pitney as a "just a journalist" when he was so recently employed by the think-tank of the co-chair of Obama's transition team.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    b.f.: Yes, good points, and it does undermine the notion that Obama was at any risk of being asked a hostile question.

  17. Dan Kennedy

    On the other hand, Pitney has reportedly been running rings around everyone in keeping track of what Iranians are saying online.

  18. Bill Baar

    Theoretical question from Nico: "Mr. President, I have a plea posted on the Internet from an Iranian. He writes, 'We're being slaughtered in the streets, yet Obama says nothing. He is as phony as past U.S. leaders.' What is your response?"Dan, I would very much like to see the emails from Iran to the White House. Your hypothetical question may very well be on mark. It's why I think this set up with Nico silly (and even siller that Rahm grinned about how clever this must have seemed of him).Instead of setting up Nico with a question to him about what he's hearing from Iranians, it would have been much more interesting to have had Nico turn around and ask what our most Cyber Saavy of Presidents was hearing from the Iranians himself.But then that's not the way Rahm wanted this cleverness to play out.

  19. Peter Porcupine

    DK – the only good thing about the Obama press organization/relationship is its clumsiness. They seem to spend all thie time shouting not to pay attention to that man behind the curtain.I would compare this exchange with the refusal to call on Fox News, who ONLY wanted to ask how the arugula was coming on…I mean, you can't DEDUCE the question from the questioner, now can you?(OT – I have a brother who is a Teamster, and an adult child who is a Registered Democrat…does that mean I can't be a conserative any more, given that our opinions are depended upon our bloodlines? And BTW – Barney Keller is NO LONGER a party spokesman).

  20. meamoeba

    pp, my point isn't so much ideology as it is hypocrisy. i have had reporters who got responses from barney stating he i needed to submit questions via email, not an unusual stance i might add and unfortunately growing among people whose job is to be the public face of a poltical or policy entity. my guess is as spokesman for rick lazio, it will be much the same. i don't see the difference with that and with preparing for questions at a press conference and knowing what will be asked and answered, no matter how it is done. my point was not does jon share barney's partisan affiliation but did jon have a problem when the mass gop required questions to be submitted in writing so carefully worded responses hitting all the points they wanted to hit could be issued? i can't find it in google, bing or yahoo. perhaps you could help.

  21. b.f.

    Dan,My impression is that Harvard's Berkman Center/Internet & Democracy Project (which may be receiving State Department funding) is also locally tracking what Iranians are saying online. As Harvard Berkman Center website notes:"The Internet & Democracy Project (I&D) has also been following the story closely, mapping Iran's blogosphere on election eve, and providing broader context with the Interactive Persian Blogosphere Map, which shows the relationships among the many kinds of bloggers active in Iran. Also see Cracking Down on Digital Communication and Political Organizing in Iran, Mapping Iran’s Blogosphere on Election Eve, and YouTube Shows Different Faces of Iranian Election on the I&D blog"Wonder if U.S. voters would consider it diplomatically appropriate for some foreign government to have funded a similar university program to monitor blogger postings in USA during the 2008 election?

  22. Bill Baar

    Wonder if U.S. voters would consider it diplomatically appropriate for some foreign government to have funded a similar university program to monitor blogger postings in USA during the 2008 election?I wish. If they could have tracked all those phoney automated Obama comments on my blogs it would have been a service.

  23. Peter Kadzis

    Dan: I read the related links quickly and only once, trying to replicate a "typical" read. 1.) From Millbank I got the impression that Obama knew pretty much what was coming. 2.) While the other parties say no so, the whole thing is not exactly a "best" practice.A couple of thoughts:–The key point here belongs to Millbank, who argues convincingly that if the world (the good guys as well as the bad) are going to take press conferences seriously then even the appearance of stagecraft, of manipulation, is undermining.–Millbank would be less than a pro if he didn't take his job seriously. But if pressed, even he might admit that little news is made at press conferences that the principal doesn't want made.–It's a shame that Pitney, an unknown who has done a sterling job, has had his halo tarnished. If he's worth anything, he'll get over it, as — I suspect — will the nation, the planet, and the cosmos. —

  24. O-FISH-L

    As usual, the cover-up is worse than the crime. Whether or not Obama knew in advance the precise wording of the question is one thing, but it's beyond a moral certainty that the plan was to call on Pitney, barring some breaking national or international crisis that would have cut the conference short. Why deny it? Whether or not the word "promise" was used, can there be any doubt that some assurance was given? It will be interesting to see how long the remaining White House correspondents play the willing fools for this team. With Brian Williams literally bowing to Obama, Harry Smith asking him (amidst the Iranian crisis) "Where did you learn to love?", and ABC using the White House as its very own studio, it will take a special reporter or two to step up, if they can get Obama to call on them, that is.

  25. Derek H

    Agree with Mr. Pahre—while I have no doubt that White House staff had arranged for Obama to call on Pitney, I don't see a compelling case that Obama new the question in advance. But to answer your questions directly:(1) If I'd read Milbank's column alone I still don't think I'd be convinced that the *question itself* was a plant, even if I hadn't seen the press conference. Milbank sounds to me like an establishment pundit angry that some new media guy, with—ha!—an inferior temporary press pass, got special treatment. As far as I'm concerned every wire service reporter in there is just as much a "plant" as Pitney. I can't tell if Milbank is whining because he doesn't get it or because he just wants to sound critical, perhaps both. Whatever the case, I'm confident that I'd pick up on his exaggeration if I'd only read his frustrated little op-ed.(2) Given that Obama didn't know Pitney's question beforehand, no, I don't think this was wrong, unethical or disrespectful. In fact, I think inviting an independent blogger to a presidential press conference—an act that most people probably would have laughed at just a few years ago—is pretty commendable. Pitney's question was a good one, better than Chip Ried's stupid remark about John McCain and Lindsay Graham, or McClatchy's ridiculous softball about smoking. On top of that, it reflected an important new approach to journalism, as Pitney went to his readers, many of them Iranian, to see what they wanted to know before he decided what to ask. Lo and behold, Obama is diversifying the stodgy gaggle of milquetoasts that is the White House press corps! Call it affirmative action for HuffPo, but I think this was an interesting and mature move. Altogether I'm amused at how appalled the big Beltway media have been with Obama's "iciness," or whatever they've called it, in this last press conference. I think these guys are eight years out of practice, if you know what I mean. Obama doesn't need to get softer, they need to get tougher. I say all this as a journalist myself and someone fairly critical of the president.

  26. ShelT

    1)I don't believe President Obama knew precisely what question he would be asked by Pitney.2)Like its predecessors, Obama Administration is trying to control the news media. Based on the presidential campaign, the Obama folks just do it better than most, and the press, increasingly, makes for a less formidable foe.Washington Press insiders such as Milbank resent that bloggers and nontraditional media types are being called on at Obama press conferences. White House press corps has an inflated opinion of itself, and conveniently has forgotten its deplorable behavior at Bush White House BBQs, its members clamoring to be dubbed wit a funny nickname from Bush. Let's not forget the Bush White House nonjournalist plant who used to ask softball questions when he wasn't posting on gay adult Web sites. Clinton and Bush eschewed press conferences for the most part. White House press corps hasn't distinguished itself since the Nixon presidency and even then, most of its members accepted Ron Ziegler's pronouncements.

  27. lkcape

    Question 1:I see nothing in Millbank's account that would say that Obama "knew" the question that was to be asked. But given the stage management of Pitney's involvement, it is a long, long stretch to say that he didn't.Given the obvious clutch that Rahm Emmanuel has on the data flowing to the President, I would find it astounding if Obama wasn't fully aware…and fully briefed…on what Pitney might actually ask and the answer he should give.Question 2:Clearly the ethics of an open and honest press conference were breached by both Pitney and the White House, and in that light it was most disrespectful of the other reporters in attendance.What is most troubling in light of this charade is the continuing claim of having the most open and accountable administration in history. Obama and his staff clearly think that they can manipulate the MSM. For the past year or so, he has been most successful. Manipulation does not equate to openness.The performance was most disrespectful to the American public.It is unrealistic to assume that the WH would not want to control its message. It's the inherent dishonesty in claiming openness when the facts more clearly support a very different conclusion that is disturbing.Shame on the MSM for falling for it.

  28. Steve

    1. Milbank's use of "arranged question" certainly makes it sound like the text of the question was negotiated with the White House. It's a sleazy obfuscation of the fact that although Putney was asked to come up with a question ("arranged" in one sense and true), the question itself was not negotiated ("arranged" in this other sense, false in this instance). Milbank was accurate without being wholely truthful.2. I think it's a step down the wrong road. It's not nearly as orchestrated as the Bush administrations press relations, but it's a step in that direction. It makes me uncomfortable at the very least, and I hope Obama's administration doesn't continue this practice.I had a question for Jon, though, over on the other blog. He characterized Putney's question as a "softball". It seems to me like anything but! What do you guys think?(And why isn't there a way to really integrate these conversations?)

  29. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: I think you win the free lifetime subscription to Media Nation. I agree with you on every point: Milbank's being disingenuous about what actually happened; the White House shouldn't have done it; and Pitney's question was, in fact, pretty tough.

  30. O'Rion

    I don't care for Milbank or Keller. So I'm hardly surprised with their concerns. What has to be accepted as a given is the media must take up the talking points of the Wilderness Party. Just check network TV on any given Sunday (if you must). But giving airtime to lame-ass complaints like this. And to the leadership of McCain , Gingrich, Mitt, Palin et al., will only exacerbate problems. The GOP can look forward to getting their heads kicked in, even in an off-year election.

  31. Scott Allen Miller

    1) Yes, essentially. 2) Irrelevant, because Obama didn't answer the question and probably never intended to. Pitney didn't ask him to predict the future of Iran. Obama was asked whether he'd recognize Ahmadinejad.Here's what happened:An aide thought it would be great for the Prez to speak directly tothe Iranian people (again). Lo and behold, one of the WH's fave bloggers has been in touch with Iranians. They bring in this guy, a friend of Podesta's working for the HuffPo, get him credentialed, tell him to be ready to ask a question, but leave open the possibility that the POTUS will not play along. Pitney agrees. The aides tell the POTUS Pitney will be in the room and if he calls him he can both throw a bone to a blog that's very influential with the base but also, regardless of what the question actually is, give the impression of addressing the concerns of the Iranians, which he's been criticized for not doing. All the POTUS would need to do is set up his own question ("You had a question from an Iranian?") in case Pitney gets all mavericky all the sudden. Oh, and be sure to call on Pitney early in the presser before people tune out. Obama agrees with the plan.Is that planting a question? Did the President know what the question would be ahead of time? Wrong questions. Is the Obama WH influencing/"setting up" its press avails unfairly and deceitfully? That's the question, and the answer is yes. This is where Milbank is essentially right. Had Obama disclosed this up front — "The Huffington Post has been in touch with lots of Iranians who are online, so we've invited Nico Pitney to ask a question from one of them" — it might have been different, Pitney's partisan activities notwithstanding.

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