Milbank incensed by "planted question" -- but not enough to tell readers what it was
Research ››› ››› JOCELYN FONG
Dana Milbank ridiculed President Obama for taking "a preplanned question" by "a planted questioner," referring to Nico Pitney. But Milbank omitted the substance of Pitney's question, which Michael Tomasky and Glenn Greenwald described as "tough."
Asserting that President Obama's June 23 press conference included "prepackaged entertainment," Dana Milbank wrote in his June 24 Washington Post column that Huffington Post national editor Nico Pitney was "a planted questioner" who asked "a preplanned question." Milbank further wrote: "The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised." But while Milbank noted that "Pitney said the White House" was "not aware of the question's wording," he did not quote or paraphrase the question itself, which Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky described as "an important and tough question that got right to the heart of the matter." The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen called it "a terrific question that the president wasn't anxious to answer," while Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald referred to it as "one of the toughest questions at the Press Conference."
During the press conference, Obama said to Pitney, "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?" Pitney replied:
PITNEY: Yeah, I did, but 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 [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of the -- of what the demonstrators there are working towards?
From Milbank's June 24 Washington Post column:
After the obligatory first question from the Associated Press, Obama treated the overflowing White House briefing room to a surprise. "I know Nico Pitney is here from the Huffington Post," he announced.
Obama knew this because White House aides had called Pitney the day before to invite him, and they had escorted him into the room. They told him the president was likely to call on him, with the understanding that he would ask a question about Iran that had been submitted online by an Iranian. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet," Obama went on. "Do you have a question?"
Pitney recognized his prompt. "That's right," he said, standing in the aisle and wearing a temporary White House press pass. "I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian."
Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.
The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn't so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, "The Obama Show."
But yesterday's daytime drama belonged primarily to Pitney, of the Huffington Post Web site. During the eight years of the Bush administration, liberal outlets such as the Huffington Post often accused the White House of planting questioners in news conferences to ask preplanned questions. But here was Obama fielding a preplanned question asked by a planted questioner -- from the Huffington Post.
Pitney said the White House, though not aware of the question's wording, asked him to come up with a question about Iran proposed by an Iranian.