Washington Post writer Dana Milbank is no partisan Democrat-hater or friend of Republicans (remember his tacky stunt following Dick Cheney's 2006 hunting accident?) but he is merciless in his critique of yesterday's carefully scripted press conference by President Obama:
In his first daytime news conference yesterday, President Obama preempted "All My Children," "Days of Our Lives" and "The Young and the Restless." But the soap viewers shouldn't have been disappointed: The president had arranged some prepackaged entertainment for them.
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?"
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." Missed yesterday's show? Don't worry: On Wednesday, ABC News will be broadcasting "Good Morning America" from the South Lawn (guest stars: the president and first lady), "World News Tonight" from the Blue Room, and a prime-time feature with Obama from the East Room.
... 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. 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.
A couple of more questions and Obama called it a day. "Mr. President!" yelled Mike Allen of Politico. "May I ask about Afghanistan? No questions about Iraq or Afghanistan?"
Sorry: Those weren't prearranged.
It's worth remembering that when liberals caught even so much as a whiff of staging in a Bush Administration press conference, the gloves came off and things got bloody in a hurry. The full-throttle effort to smear Jeff Gannon (including viciously outing him as a homosexual, parading his former life as a gay escort, and subsequently destroying his career as a writer and journalist) for asking a friendly question at a 2005 Bush press conference stands as a sobering example of what happens when the natural, deeply ingrained, adversarial nature of mainstream press/Republican White House relations is challenged by an "outsider."
But these days, with Democrats firmly in control, carefully screened and planted questions seem to be the norm at Democrat-orchestrated political events. During the 2008 election, the starry-eyed Obama love expressed by the mainstream press caused many people (including myself) to wonder if the press had, by and large, simply given up its traditional role of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." With the "good guys" finally in charge, the role of "adversary" suddenly seemed strangely unpatriotic to liberals.
I'm no fan of Dana Milbank, but it's nice to see someone step up and call the Democrats on their use of the mainstream press as nothing more than a PR and propaganda tool.