Has The Huffington Post Ruined Press Conferences Forever?
The facts, as we know them: Nico Pitney, an editor at the Huffington Post, has done a tremendous job aggregating information on the Iranian protest movement. Particularly innovative has been his effort to collect and publish perspectives emerging from within Iran. Pitney, in fact, asked the Iranians communicating with him him to submit questions that they'd like posed to the president. At some point before President Obama's Tuesday press conference, the White House reached out to Pitney and asked if he'd attend the conference and ask a question submitted by an actual Iranian of his choice.
I don't want to suggest that there's nothing weird about this scenario. Taking a query from an Iranian reformer was a method of communicating with the Iranian reform movement. It was a method of implicitly elevating and supporting them. It was as much a policy initiative as a messaging initiative, and Huffington Post ended up being part of that policy.
But the outrage seems to rely on a weird respect for the White House press conference -- a vision of them as some genuine vehicle of accountability where an aggressive and independent press corps can interrogate the president. But White House press conferences are contemptible! Reporters get one question, and then the president moves on, whether he has answered it or not. The assembled journalists frequently ask questions that are meant for entertainment (What has been most "enchanting" about the presidency? Do you smoke? What type of dog are you getting?), suggesting that they see this as political entertainment rather than an hour of accountability. Queries are phrased to maximize their possibility of making news rather than their possibility of eliciting an informative response. The whole thing is a fraud with moments of accidental usefulness.
In a world where press conferences were different, where reporters refused to attend if follow-ups were not allowed and every member of every outlet took the occasion as a rare moment to press the president on matters of national importance, I might be able to summon up some concern about the precedent set by Pitney's question. But in this world? At least that question was useful to somebody.