Change in Washington comes in increments, and a door was cracked open on Feb. 9 when, in the first official press conference of the Obama Administration, the President took a question from a reporter who writes only for a Web outlet. Admittedly, said outlet was the Huffington Post , so the reporter was unlikely to throw a curveball. Nevertheless, the President, and with him the whole White House media shop, has crossed a Rubicon of sorts, acknowledging the equivalent legitimacy of an unapologetically unobjective media outlet, which lives nowhere but the Internet and which didn’t even exist four years ago.
Presidential press conferences, in many ways, are like fashion shows. They proceed in a predictable and highly orchestrated fashion. Invitees are there to observe but also to strut their stuff. Attendance is limited to insiders. And the seating is telling, reflecting an ingrained pecking order. In the White House, the two wire outlets, Reuters and AP, are always given front-row seats and invited to ask the first questions of the President. But also sitting in the front row at Obama’s press conference were Sam Stein, a 26-year-old class of ’07 graduate of Columbia Journalism School who works for the Huffington Post, and Ed Schultz, a former sportscaster turned liberal talk-show host.
Every White House conducts its media briefings differently; these nuances help establish the tone of an Administration, and they are much discussed. Fox News noted that Obama called on two liberals. Ms. magazine mentioned that Obama called on six women. By calling on Stein on such a big stage, Obama is continuing to work the message that this is not a traditional presidency, that he is not averse to working with those outside the establishment. The Huffington Post’s readers are likelier to be younger, leftier and more politically engaged than most of the consumers of the old-school media outlets, so it’s also a way of reaching straight into his base. Stein’s question was whether Obama would consider instituting a Truth and Reconciliation Committee for Republicans similar to the one established after apartheid in South Africa as had been suggested earlier that day by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Good question, but not a hard one to deflect.
Ironically, Stein’s bosses debated whether he should go to the conference, since it’s easier to blog in real time when you’re watching an event on TV. “You can put your computer in front of the TV and post much quicker,” Stein says. But it was decided that he should attend, a decision that seemed all the wiser when he got a call from the press office confirming his appearance and letting him know he had a good seat. “I knew then that I’d probably get to ask a question,” he says.
Not that Obama dispensed with tradition entirely. He took a question from Helen Thomas, the grandmother clock of the White House press corps . And he took questions from reporters from the four big networks, CNN, Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. There were big-city newspapers he overlooked , but giving the Huffington Post a question seemed to be more gestural than suggestive of an unwillingness to work with the mainstream media. As if to prove this, the next day Obama came to the press cabin of Air Force One and started joking with journalists from AP, NPR, Bloomberg and Reuters about how they got questions, opining that they must have been nice to press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Just like fashion shows, ultimately, presidential press conferences are all about appearance.
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