There seems to be consternation among mainstream media members over the fact that President Obama’s staff arranged in advance of yesterday’s press conference to have Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post ask a question about Iran. Pitney has been in contact with Iranian dissidents via the internet, and the White House was aware of this. In the unlikely event that any other member of the White House press corps was similarly situated, the president’s staff probably didn’t know about it.
Acccording to Bill Burton of the White House press office:
We did reach out to [Pitnety] prior to press conference to tell him that we had been paying attention to what he had been doing on Iran and there was a chance that he’d be called on. . . .In the absence of an Iranian press corps in Washington, it was an innovative way to get a question directly from an Iranian.
I agree, provided the intent was to get a question from an Iranian, as opposed to Pitney himself, and assuming the White House did not know the specific question in advance. I also agree with Burton’s assessment that the question Pitney presented was “the toughest question that the President took on Iran.”
The proper purpose of a White House press conference is to confront the president with pertinent, well-crafted questions, not to treat all correspondents equally. The White House, in its telling, had reason to believe Pitney was in a great position to ask such a question about Iran due to his direct communications with dissidents. Under these circumstances, Obama provided a service by making sure he called on Pitney.
By tipping Pitney off that he would likely get to pose a question, the White House increased the likelihood that Pitney would carefully select the best possible question. As for Obama, he gained no substantive advantage from knowing that one of his questions about Iran would be from a dissident, via Pitney.
Perhaps Pitney’s moment in the sun will encourage members of the White House press corps from traditional media outlets to use the internet to get ahead of the curve.