Isn't Obama Planting a Huffington Post Question Worse Than Bush's 'Gannongate'?

In 2005, NBC and MSNBC and CNN strongly attacked the Bush White House for allowing reporter "Jeff Gannon" of Talon News and GOPUSA.com (real name: James Guckert) to enter the White House on a day pass and ask questions to spokesman Scott McClellan and President Bush. Will these networks find it even more scandalous that the Obama White House much more explicitly pre-arranged a question from the left-wing website The Huffington Post, and allowed their reporter Nico Pitney to have the second question of the entire event, like they were the second most important "news" outlet in America? Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank explained the special treatment on Wednesday:

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 question itself was not fawning toward Obama. It relayed Iranian protesters’ concerns that Obama would betray them by recognizing the election of Ahmadinejad. But shouldn’t the liberal media that claimed Gannon was granted some elaborate and special relationship with the Bushies show any interest in the media ethics of this setup? As Milbank explained:

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.

In the first two years of the Bush era, I was a White House reporter, and I asked conservative questions. Could it just be assumed by liberals that I was "planted"? (Like "Gannon," my questions often came at the very end of briefings. They weren't question two.) But if the Huffington Post is like the left-wing equivalent of the Drudge Report, would the left accept Bush pre-arranging a question from Matt Drudge at a White House press conference -- even if it was tough?

Pitney wasn’t the only reporter whose question was pre-arranged, as Milbank reported:

And, as it turned out, he was not the only prearranged questioner at yesterday's show. Later, Obama passed over the usual suspects to call on Macarena Vidal of the Spanish-language EFE news agency. The White House called Vidal in advance to see whether she was coming and arranged for her to sit in a seat usually assigned to a financial trade publication. She asked about Chile and Colombia.

This allowed Obama to praise effusively the socialist president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, and the socialist president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, who recently raised eyebrows when he declared the global financial crisis was caused by "white people with blue eyes."

Milbank did not report that Obama's arrangements here may have prevented the president from entertaining a question from The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis