Mr. President, Iran Has a Question

How Obama is using the media to destroy and improve the traditional press conference.

President Obama

There was a tiny tempest this week in the Washington press corps. The White House arranged to have Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post ask a question he received over the Web from an Iranian. This caused mild upset among some traditional news organizations, which, in turn, prompted harsh derision from many in the Web-only world. (On Sunday, the tempest became a fracas on CNN’s media-affairs show Reliable Sources as Pitney traded accusations with the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.)

This is an intramural fight that won’t go away. We love to talk about ourselves. (If you think this is navel-gazing, move on or close your browser. If you do read on, don’t say you weren’t warned, and don’t complain.) Beyond the media world, this small fracas is interesting because it’s a predictable clash between various media outlets in a swiftly changing world. Pitney is a new kind of journalist not just because he works for a Web site but because on the Iran story, he’s been a first-rate aggregator—sifting all different kinds of media for the narrative of an ongoing story. This is an entirely new kind of animal, available not just at the Huffington Post but at the New York Times.

What’s new about this little press conference episode is not the arrangement but the context. The White House arranges things all the time with reporters. It just doesn’t usually happen during a press conference. (The Jeff Gannon incident was the exception that proves the rule.)

In a better world, reporters would not rely on the White House for access to the president. But we do. The administration decides who gets called on and who gets sit-down interviews and who gets all-day access complete with a trip to a hamburger joint with the president. So there’s nothing new about a reporter getting a choice piece of access because there’s something in it for the White House.

In the Bush years, the mere notion that reporters would engage in any kind of arranging at all was a cause for criticism. The argument was that reporters were captive because they relied on the White House to allow them even in the door to do their jobs. I remember being on a panel with Arianna Huffington, who argued persuasively that because the White House press corps relied on access, the transaction between it and the White House was inherently tainted. (She wrote an account of that panel.)

There was, and is, merit to this charge. Reporters and news organizations have, at times, traded away toughness for access.

But access does not guarantee softness. Pitney got his shot and asked a good question, proof of which is that the president fled from it. (Further proof is that Obama started his answer with the word well—a little tic that tells you he’s not so enthusiastic.)

Now Arianna Huffington and her defenders are on the other side of this intramural spat. They are arguing a version of what the mainstream media used to argue: It’s not the access; it’s what you do with it. That’s a healthy evolution. It’s true that some of the same writers now praising the Obama administration for its openness to a new kind of journalism would probably have howled in protest if Bush had done something similar at a press conference. How much this hypocrisy bothers you probably depends on how partisan you are.

But what’s truly silly is pretending the arrangement doesn’t exist. This is either a delusion or a strained rationale the mainstream media use to justify its choice access. Fear of losing that access, by the way, isn’t necessarily selfish sour grapes: Mainstream media outlets pay a lot of money to cover the White House, and the information they provide (presumably) is a public good. For this expenditure of money and resources, they might argue, they should receive some preferential treatment. If they don’t get at least pride of place in the Q&A pecking order at a press conference, they’ll go away—and we’ll all suffer. (The counterargument is that they get plenty of access.)

There are members of the traditional press who concede that there is a symbiotic relationship between the White House and its press corps—but they’re still bothered by this episode because it took place at a press conference, which turned the other reporters into props.

Pitney’s question helped create a tableau that benefited the White House on this specific story: A president who was being criticized for insufficient fellow-feeling with Iranian protesters got a chance to show that he was making a special effort to field a question from an Iranian. After all, the president could have answered Pitney’s questions in private. But he wanted to show his empathy to the world, and to create this tableau, he needed the Huffington Post to agree to this arrangement. As an enabling of tableaux, however, this was puny compared with the tableau created by the recent ABC and NBC specials, which were longer and reached far more people than the press conference.

If the president had sat down with Pitney, the mainstream press wouldn’t have minded so much. They cared, in part, because the episode made them participants. The White House used the press conference stage for the arrangement.

As a civilian, how upset you are about this depends on how much importance you give White House press conferences. There is a school of thought that nothing much useful comes out of presidential press conferences. I disagree. They may be staged events—the president picks the questioners, and they’re held on his turf, usually—but they are among the least staged interactions between the president and the press.

While the Obama team has meddled in press conferences in a new way, it’s also made them less planned. Obama calls on a wider range of reporters than the Bush team did—reporters from Web sites, reporters from smaller magazines, Stars and Stripes—and those questions are likely to be more unpredictable, which is good. On balance, then, this White House has actually made the press conference more likely to generate useful news.

Finally, a personal perspective on the members of the White House press corps: For a lot of them, the press conference is the only place where they get a crack at the president. The White House beat can make stars out of network TV correspondents and big-city newspaper reporters, but there are a lot of other members of the press corps you’ve never heard of and probably never will. There are fewer of these types now, because these are the people losing their jobs as the media contract.

Press conferences are often their one chance to ask a question of a president they’ve watched and studied for months. They prepare their questions, remind themselves of the last time someone from an obscure outlet got called on, and hope they get their shot. Then they watch as the traditional big-media outlets get their questions, and when it all ends yet again without them being able to ask anything, they’re disappointed.

Now, as they are moved farther to the back of the room, they have one more reason to be disappointed. Even if you buy the White House’s rationale, you can appreciate how they may find this new arrangement hard to take.