The D.C. Press Corps vs. The Huffington Post

While there are legitimate complaints to be made against the institution of blogging, most in the traditional media who try come across as curmudgeonly old farts who, rather than adjust to the times, prefer to rail against the Internet as their intellectual forefathers might have done against the likes of the printing press or cotton gin.

The latest spat between Adriana Huffington’s ‘Post’ and the old guard in the D.C. press corps is no exception. Under the façade of seemingly legitimate complaints, the decidedly stuck-in-their-ways traditional media has attempted to create a controversy out of President Obama allowing a Huffington Post blogger — one Nico Pitney — to ask a question of him at a press conference. Oh, the horror.

(This is the president of the same party that recently credentialed bloggers for the Democratic National Convention and gave them a tent of their own, presumably furnished with the same Nintendo Wii’s, massage chairs and beer, all too conspicuously present despite the lack consistent wi-fi in the traditional media tent where I was working. In other words, this move shouldn’t have come as a surprise.)

The criticisms of the move are summed up nicely (though not necessary shared) by the New York Times in this article.

The move generated complaints from Mr. Obama’s critics about the staging of an ostensibly unscripted news conference and deep consternation among White House reporters worried about the increasingly blurry line between traditional news organizations and ideological outlets. But it also generated plenty of scorn from new media representatives about how privileged old-line media types were whining about their turf while missing the profound changes of the information age.

The first, and more superficial complaint is that inviting a liberal blogger to ask a press conference question stinks of opportunism. A left-leaning blog would surely ask an easy question and make Obama look good, right?

I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian. We solicited questions last night from people who are still courageous enough to be communicating online, and one of them wanted to ask you this: Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards? (via The Economist)

Hardly the softball the critics would have you believe. I, for one, would be interested in hearing Obama’s response, but the reporters’ blog makes my computer crash. (Yeah, Huffington Post, let’s embed 10 videos and 40 high-res images on the same page. You guys should add a few more flash plug-ins while you’re at it.)

The other complaint — that of allowing a blogger to ask what’s been characterized as a staged question — has merit, though I think it falls apart under closer inspection. As the New York Times points out, while the White House doesn’t ever know exactly what a reporter is going to ask in advance, it usually has a very good idea based on the sorts of articles reporters have been doing digging on recently. So when Obama’s team invited the blogger, it was anticipating a question on Iran. It did not, however, know what the question would be.

The Economist offers further critique:

There are some norms in journalism that I’m willing to say should just be hewed to blindly, stupidly, and automatically. “Don’t accept gifts from people you report on” is one. “Don’t assist public officials in stage-managing their press conferences” is another. These ought to be observed—even when, as in this case, there’s no apparent harm in their violation—for several reasons.

The first is that people are poor judges of their own susceptibility to influence. …

This is an excellent point, were we operating in a vacuum. But the particulars of this case, I think, make it a moot one. The blogger asked the president a question from an Iranian. Sure, Obama’s team wanted to field such a question for P.R. reasons, but it was in the name of citizen journalism that the blogger consented to it. And I’d wager that nearly every story they write, the White House press corps is engaged in similar, knowingly “scratch your back/you scratch mine” behavior in the interest of getting the story they want. Sometimes you have to play the game a little.

The bigger point is that if someone from the Washington Post, or say, ABCNews had asked the question under similar circumstances, we wouldn’t have heard a peep from the elite media. It was because a blogger made it in the room that sensibilities were offended.

The New York Times, to its credit, concluded its article with this quote:

Joe Lockhart, who was a press secretary for Mr. Clinton, said the problem with the tactic involving Mr. Pitney was that it created a distraction from the more important issue, namely Mr. Obama’s response to the crisis in Iran.

“The idea was a good one,” he said, “but it would have worked better if they told everyone in advance what they were planning. They’re now getting an object lesson that the most interesting story in the briefing room to reporters is a story about themselves.”

Self-awareness is a beautiful thing.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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