Nico Pitney — Foot in the Door or Flunking Journalism 101?

Wed, June 24, 2009

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President Obama made a really big deal out of calling on and highlighting the fact that he called on Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post at his news conference. Pitney asked Obama a question about Iran, which is really no big surprise, even though the point of the news conference was to discuss the health care agenda.

But it turns out, according to Dana Milbank at The Washington Post, that Pitney was invited to the news conference by the White House (usually if you’re not credentialed with a hard pass you have to request a pass to get into a news conference at the White House) AND was asked to pose a question about Iran from the perspective of the Iranian people.

Good topic? Yes. Interesting perspective? No doubt. But as a journalist (yes, I AM a journalist, I just happen to have a blog, too) I just have to say — WHAT?!?!

Don’t get me wrong — I love that the Obama administration wants to call on political bloggers at the news conferences. More of us should be in there (I’m putting that on my 2009 ‘to do’ list now!) But last time I checked my journalism ethics, it’s not really kosher to have the person being questioned feed the queries to that reporter ahead of time.

So I have to wonder whether the invitation to attend the news conference was contingent on Pitney asking that question? What if he had said, “Thank you so much! I will definitely be there, but I prefer to decide on my own which question to ask if called on.”

That’s what I would have said. At least I think that’s how I would have responded. Or would it have been too tempting an opportunity to pass up? Would I have rationalized it somehow — well, just this one time I’ll ask the question they want me to. After all it is timely and topical. And it would get PunditMom some really good exposure!

I’m pretty sure I know the answer. I’m disappointed in Pitney and The Huffington Post for agreeing to that condition. I’m even more upset at the Obama White House. I thought they’d be better than that. Next thing you know, they’re going to be calling up Helen Thomas like the Bush people to make her give up her seat to someone they think will be more sympathetic to their cause.

Don’t call me if that happens. If it does, I’ll be out looking for a new profession.

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15 Responses to “Nico Pitney — Foot in the Door or Flunking Journalism 101?”

  1. impromptublogger Says:

    I'm disappointed too, as that was a tactic Bush used for quite a long time. There was some guy I can't remember where from who was a plant, and then he "came out of the closet" and lost his job.

    I'm hoping since he did get called on it that it won't happen again.

  2. Becky Says:

    Pitney is not a journalist. HuffPo is not journalism. That said, what the White House did was wrong, especially when considered in the context of Obama's promise of transparency.

  3. Sarah Says:

    Not sure why your main source is Dana Milbank. Almost everything I've read on this subject says Pitney was already planning on coming, and was told ahead of time that he might get a question. The question was not pre-selected, but Obama did have every reason to believe it would be a question about Iran. It was actually one of the toughest questions Obama was asked in the entire course of the presser. Here are accounts I trust more than whiny Dana Milbank:
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/06/has_the_huffington_post_ruined.html
    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_06/018747.php
    http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/political-media/white-house-we-didnt-coordinate-question-with-the-huffington-post/

  4. PunditMom Says:

    I've read many of the other accounts, and I think they beg the question — you still have a White House asking a journalist to come and ask a question on a specific topic. Pitney wasn't the only one that day — another journo was also asked to do the same on another topic, according to Milbank.

    Regardless of whether he was planning to attend or not, the fact that the White House is trying to steer questions — even good ones — borders on tampering with the press. A news conference is supposed to be open to whatever questions there are. If Obama wants to talk about Iran and the stories of Iranians, that's fabulous. But anytime you have the person being questioned, even POTUS, being the source of the questions, that's not journalism.

  5. tmonkey Says:

    Does it matter that he's not a "journalist" from the Main Stream Media? He was deemed important enough to appear because of the work he was doing leading up to the conference (it may not be called journalism but his blog updates were by far the most useful and newsworthy source of information from Iran — far better than NBC, or CBS or ABC). He was asked to pose a question from an Iranian because he could, he actually solicited the questions on his page before attending. I thought this was immensely valuable.

  6. Anon1 Says:

    I might also suggest that you accept the offer to go and merely nod your head agreeably about the question they want you to pose, then go in and ask your own damn question.

    They have a right to request you ask a question and you have a right to be noncommittal or opaque about your agreement and a right to ask any question YOU want to ask. Or on another line, if you are seeking to draw blood, you could stand up and do something like this: "Mr President, your staff made it clear to me that my being invited to this press conference was contingent upon me asking you this question about Iran, '(present the question)'. Why would you or your staff make such a demand? How can you defend this when Bush was rightly excoriated for doing the same thing?"

    There you go, you technically ask the question they "requested" you ask but only as part of a more important question on WH ethics (or lack thereof).

  7. Gwen Mataisz Says:

    If you are indeed a journalist, I would assume you would check your facts before you pontificate on the situation. Facts be damned, full speed ahead. As others in these comments have already pointed out, Mr. Milbank's facts are mereoly smarmy speculation.

  8. boissacha Says:

    not shocked at all that huffington post is a lapdog for the obama white house since obama is not realy a liberal like bill maher said and Iriana huffington use to be a republican and married to one
    i like to no why did she become a democrat and where did she get the money to start her blog.
    been watching her for years i remember when she changed sides few months later she starts a blog
    i think she change parties to take control of the naretive of the democratic party.
    she is nothing but a infil trator

  9. Anonymous Says:

    This is a stupid story. Dude asked a hard question. Why shouldn't the White House want a question about Iran from an actual Iranian?
    Where was all the coverage of the Jeff Gannon(GWB's hooker softballer) scandal? Which was indeed scandalous. Unlike this.
    Who's a "real" journalist then? Judy Miller?
    Yikes.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    "So I have to wonder whether the invitation to attend the news conference was contingent on Pitney asking that question? What if he had said, "Thank you so much! I will definitely be there, but I prefer to decide on my own which question to ask if called on."

    So, in other words you assume that this is what happened, and base the rest of your insipid coloumn on the hypothetical strawman you created? Nice job.

    Pitney wasn't "fed" the question by the administration, he solicited questions from actual Iranians.

    The administration, knowing this, decides to make sure to call on him. Perhaps you wanted nothing but mainstream "journalists" asking him juvenile questions about his smoking, or taking pictures of Obama killing flys?

    As others have noted, the question Pitney asked was probably the best, most adversarial question asked during the entire presser, and this is somehow equivalent to the Bush administration planting reporters to ask "when did John Kerry stop beating his wife" questions?

    And finally, again as others have noted, Millbank was completely wrong in his column. So you read 1 article, linked to it without doing any other research (or maybe sending Nico Pitney an email to ask him what happened), set up an absurd strawman, and then indignantly tear it down.

    This is why print news is dieing, and people increasingly turn to outlets like the HuffingtonPost (or whatever the conservative equivalent would be, FOX? RedState?) for their news. The villager mentality, which Milbank embodies, is exactly what is driving people away from traditional news outlets.

  11. PunditMom Says:

    Some commenters are missing the real point — the White House asked Pitney to come specifically to ask a certain question. With well over a decade in what my skeptics would call MSM, I have NEVER been approached by the person being interviewed and asked to pose a specific question.

    THAT'S THE POINT! Of course, he could ask that question and of course it's important. But it is, as I said before, a slippery slope no matter what you think of Milbank. No one is disputing the key facts:

    Pitney and another journo were invited to the White House to ask questions on specific topics. Whether the questions were good ones or pertinent ones aren't the point.

    Milbank isn't the only one who has reported those key facts. How one feels about his spin is a separate question. But when I was learning to be a reporter, many years ago, it was a cardinal no-no to let the interviewee even come close to suggesting what should be asked and what subject areas were to be covered.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Hi PM, it's the same Anon from one post above your last response. In your latest post you stated:

    "[..]I have NEVER been approached by the person being interviewed and asked to pose a specific question.

    THAT'S THE POINT! Of course, he could ask that question and of course it's important.[...]"

    But Nico WASN'T asked to pose a specific question, THAT'S THE POINT! Nico was doing arguably the best coverage on the web on the Iranian crisis, and clearly stated on his blog the night before the presser that he was soliciting questions directly from Iranians.

    The administration, acknowledging this, decided it would be relevant to let him pose the question he got from a reader in Iran. Do you honestly feel that it violates journalistic ethics to make sure to call on someone, knowing that they were bringing this unique perspective on a highly salient current issue? If so, that's where we disagree I guess.

    Again, the administration didn't, repeat DID NOT, give Nico a specific question to ask. In fact no one -except Nico of course- knew what question he would ask beforehand, and to characterize it differently is simply disingenuous, that's why a couple commenters were calling foul on Milbank.

  13. PunditMom Says:

    Maybe we just see this as apples and oranges. If someone from the White House called me and said you can come to the news conference but you can only ask a question about one topic, that to me says they are steering the conversation … that's not really what the press should be about.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    PM:
    "Maybe we just see this as apples and oranges. If someone from the White House called me and said you can come to the news conference but you can only ask a question about one topic, that to me says they are steering the conversation … that's not really what the press should be about."

    I can agree about "steering the conversation" in most cases, I guess we just disagree on the fact that this is what was going on.

    I would argue that this isn't a case of "you can come but you have to ask this", I'm reading it as more like "I hear you want to ask this, ok, we're going to give you the chance" do you see the distinction I'm trying to make?

    Anyways, it's probably not worth arguing about any longer. I'm new to your blog, but from my short perusal of some of your other posts I suspect we'd probably agree on most things political and we're probably not going to change each other's minds on this point.

    In closing, thanks for not immediately dismissing my arguments as "nasty, anonymous comments" simply because we disagree (and I chose to remain anonymous). A practice all too common in the "blogosphere", regretably.

    Cheers!

  15. PunditMom Says:

    Anonymous, I mean it when I cay I love a lively political conversation!


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