The Crucifixion of Nico Pitney


Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration but the Huffington Post reporter is getting tweaked this morning for the question he posed to President Obama at yesterday's White House Press Conference. It was an odd moment because normally, of course, reporters raise their hands, the president calls on someone and they ask their question. In this case the president seemed to have Pitney in mind already.

 "Nico, I know you and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran," Obama said.  "I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?"

Pitney then posed a question that he said had been posed by an Iranian citizen. The exchange can be seen here.

Did this amount to "choreography"  or some ethical lapse? Please.

First, it's no more choreographed than the centuries-old tradition of calling on Helen Thomas first long after her then employer, United Press International, had become a mere shadow of its former self. The practice stopped when Thomas moved to Hearst to become a columnist. The president continues to live by the tradition of calling on the Associated Press first and everyone knows that the broadcast networks will all be called on as well as the other wire services, Bloomberg and Reuters. Major papers usually, but don't always, get called on too. That's a kind of staging, too.

What makes the Pitney-Obama exchange different is that the White House seems to have called Pitney and told him that they might call on him for an Iran question because of his yeoman's work aggregating Tweets and blogs from Iran. But since Pitney didn't tell the White House what question it was, I don't think there was any untoward coordination. I've known other reporters who have gotten subtle hints that they might be called on at a presidential press conference. So what?

I admit that if this had been Newsmax or Redstate chatting it up with Ari Fleischer before a news conference the mainstream media might be raising more of a stink. But I think the basic idea that the White House didn't know the question before hand, only that it might come from an Iranian citizen means that this was all above board. And certainly the idea of trying to reach out directly to Iranians was a reasonable one for the White House to pursue. I was in Damascus in 1994 when the White House tried to arrange for an American journalist writing for an Israeli publication to post a question at a joint press conference of Bill Clinton and then Syrian President Hafez AL Assad. The idea then as now was to promote direct contacts. The press conference never happened and so the question wasn't posed. I didn't think it was an ethical lapse then or now. Besides, the Iranian who posed the question via Pitney offered up one a lot smarter question than some of the eyerollers offered by other reporters like, did you speak out on Iran because of Lindsay Graham and John McCain (CBS News's Chip Reid) or (Fox News's Major Garrett) What took you so long?

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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