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

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June 26 2009 3:30 PM

Mr. President, Iran Has a Question

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

President Obama. Click image to expand.
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.)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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.

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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.)

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