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Did Obama's White House set up the HuffingtonPost Iran question?

June 25, 2009 |  2:24 am

Something of an inside baseball media controversy this week growing out of the president's news conference and the way he set up one particular question on Iran.

As you can see from the news conference transcript (scroll down for the excerpt), the president clearly had advance knowledge that Nico Pitney, national editor of HuffingtonPost, was present and had a question concerning Iran.

Democrat president Barack Obama leaves a White House News Conference 6-23-09

The White House press corps still considers itself the elite of the Washington media, even if the very internet savvy Obama White House develops its own independent means of spreading news without the filter of highly-paid media reps.

So the president going out of his way to call on Pitney, jumping the established line, so to speak, caused all kinds of catty comments and worse from other DC media types, implying that the website got special treatment.

(Despite having been the online source of that damaging small towns clinging to their religion and guns story out of a San Francisco fundraiser during the Democratic primaries.)

The answer, of course, is HuffPo did get special treatment. For one thing it showed initiative in seeking input from Iranians.

But the treatment came only, Pitney explains in the C-SPAN video below, because the president's vigilant online people discovered he was soliciting questions online and Twitter to ask Obama from within Iran during the ongoing protests.

Pitney claims the White House did not know the question in advance, but indicated its willingness to call on him. Unbeknownst to many during the news conference, the White House was providing simultaneous Arabic and Farsi translations of the president's remarks on its website.

So having an apparent question from within Iran was something of a presidential press conference producer's dream for that distant foreign audience where, perhaps by coincidence, it was only about 9 p.m. Tuesday's midday news conference, the president's fourth, was the first not in prime time, which would have normally been the middle of the night in the Mideast.

Managing news conference questions, of course, goes on all the time. Obama uses an advance list of reporters to call. George W. Bush used to call on reporters seemingly randomly. But during Ari Fleischer's days as press secretary, he would seat the Do Not Call On reporters in one section and alert the president in advance not to go there.

During the fall of 2007 run-up to the primaries there was a major flap when an Iowa college student revealed she'd been coached by a Hillary Clinton staffer to ask a particular question that, not surprisingly, Clinton was well prepared for.

The New York senator vowed not to do it again as other candidates said they would never do such a thing. Perhaps the candidates would never arrange such a thing, but every campaign staff routinely plants questions with supporters who are only too happy to go on camera addressing the candidate and not eager for anyone to know it wasn't really their query.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Excerpt from President Obama's News Conference June 23, 2009


THE PRESIDENT: I think that the international community is, as I said before, bearing witness to what's taking place. And the Iranian government should understand that how they handle the dissent within their own country, generated indigenously, internally, from the Iranian people, will help shape the tone not only for Iran's future but also its relationship to other countries.

Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post.

Q Thank you, Mr. President.

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

Q Yes, I did, 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?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, we didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizeable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance -- a little grumbling here or there.

There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election. And so ultimately the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that's why I've been very clear:

Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government. What we can do is to say unequivocally that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with peaceful dissent, that spans cultures, spans borders.

And what we've been seeing over the Internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles. I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it.    ###

Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Video courtesy of C-SPAN