Mr. President, Iran Has a Question
How Obama is using the media to destroy and improve the traditional press conference.
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.