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Pitney's Iran Question Upsets the Press Apple Cart

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 24 2009

The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney's question to President Obama at yesterday's White House press conference has caused quite the stir in certain circles. Well, not so much the question itself -- which asked whether an acceptance of the re-election of Ahmadinejad would constitute a "betrayal" of Iranian demonstrators -- but how the question got to the point of being asked at all. That there was some measure of orchestration behind the exchange was undeniable; Obama called on Pitney by saying "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?" And Pitney later described how he solicited questions through readers of his live blog, and through outreach in Farsi on Twitter and the Persian social network Balatarin; the White House saw what he was up to, and got in touch to let him know that he might be called on during the briefing.

It was all too much for some. Politico's Michael Calderone declared that Obama "broke with protocol" by calling on Pitney in between questions from the wire services. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank dispensed with nuance, calling Pitney "a planted questioner." Huffington Post namesake Arianna Huffington pushed back, saying that critics of the exchange "clearly need a nap," and pointing to her own criticisms of the Obama Administration to stand as a proxy for HuffPo's objectivity. White House spokesperson Bill Burton focused on the concept that Pitney's question wasn't his at all, really, but a query channeled through him. "[I]t was an innovative way to get a question directly form an Iranian," said Burton, before getting in a dig at the regular White House press corps: "[H]e ended up asking the toughest question that the President took on Iran."

Our own Ari Melber, writing for The Nation, makes the case that -- leaving aside the desirability of injecting some "regular citizen" perspective into the press process -- White House press conferences aren't exactly a free-wheeling exchange of ideas on any day.