Monday, June 29, 2009

Traditional Media Meet New Media

Nico Pitney is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has been live-blogging for the past several weeks on the crisis in Iran. He has developed sources within Iran, monitored social networking sites, posted images, posted videos, etc. and helped to provide a better understanding of this complex and ever-changing situation.

Before President Obama's latest press conference, which Pitney was slated to attend, he posted a note on the live-blog that he was soliciting questions from Iranians and that he would choose a question to ask should he be called upon during the press conference. President Obama did call on Pitney during the press conference and Pitney asked under what conditions would Obama accept the election of Ahmadinejad.

Pitney fully acknowledges that the White House contacted him prior to the news conference to say that the President may be interested in fielding a question from an Iranian, but both the White House and Pitney say that there was no pre-set question discussed. After all, Pitney has become known over the last few weeks for his extensive and up-to-the minute coverage. This threw the usual group of White House correspondents into a rage, especially Dana Milbank of the Washington Post who wrote the following:

Pitney asked his question, as arranged. Reporters in the room looked at each other in amazement at the stagecraft they had just witnessed. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel looked at the first row of TV correspondents and grinned.

The Huffington Post writer's question -- "under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad?" -- was a perfectly legitimate one, and, according to people involved in the arrangement, Pitney didn't share his specific question in advance with the White House.

Still, the private agreement -- to call on a questioner under condition that he ask his question on a particular topic in a particular way -- is very close to what the left justifiably deplored when there were accusations (denied by the media) that the White House was pre-screening reporters and their questions before news conferences.

So you knew that sparks were going to fly when Pitney and Milbank were both slated to be guests on CNN's "Reliable Sources":

It sounds like traditional media isn't too happy with the advances of the new media. So what happened is this:

- Pitney has become widely known for doing a very good job at live-blogging about the crisis in Iran over the last few weeks.
- Pitney was slated to attend President Obama's press conference.
- The White House contacted Pitney to say that he may be called on during the press conference and that the President may be interested in hearing a question from an Iranian.
- Pitney solicits questions from Iranians via Twitter, Facebook, and the blog in case he does get called on during the press conference.
- Pitney gets called on and asks a solid and legitimate question.
- Milbank complains that Pitney was a "plant" and that the White House had "pre-selected" Pitney and "pre-screened" his question.

I think it is clear that the criticism leveled by Milbank is rooted in his dissatisfaction that a blogger from the Huffington Post was called on to relay a question to the President from an actual Iranian. To be outraged that the White House would pre-select questions from reporters is ridiculous unless one either hasn't been paying attention to the press conferences of the last few Presidents or has been complaining about pre-selected reporters during those Presidencies as well. Milbank has done neither. Milbank's other claim, that the question was pre-arranged, appears to be flat-out inaccurate according to both Pitney and the White House. Ari Melber has some additional insight:

So the complaints of several Washington reporters are not only odd, but hard to take at face value. It is particularly rich for reporters to protest that the White House told Pitney he might be tapped for a question. Every day, a few top White House correspondents have special access in press briefings, while many reporters are never called on (seating charts are powerful). And many Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview. (Readers would be interested -- media criticism and scrutiny tends to draw traffic across the spectrum.)

Dana Milbank's outrage over what he hints at as a lack of journalistic integrity is interesting considering Milbank's appearance in things like this:

and the Washington Post fired columnist Dan Froomkin because of budgetary constraints. Call me crazy, but I would take Froomkin over videos like the one above any day.

This piece is crossposted here.

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