President Obama took a question from an Iranian citizen during his Tuesday press conference, via Huffington Post reporter Nico Pitney, marking a small step towards a more open and interactive Washington press corps. You might not know that, however, from the press corps’ reaction.
Since Obama was inaugurated, many media critics, citizen journalists and web activists have been calling on him to answer meaningful, unfiltered questions from citizens. After watching the Obama Campaign in action, people saw the potential for deeper, direct engagement between wired citizens and a President who gets new media and believes in transparency.
Citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor, author of We The Media, proposed a citizen press corps to corner politicians on hard questions. Ask The President, which I helped launch in a coalition spanning The Washington Times, The Nation and TechPresident, has already convened national voting on citizen questions for Obama’s press conferences. And several White House correspondents have solicited citizen suggestions for potential questions at Obama’s pressers, including Jake Tapper, Chuck Todd, Ana Marie Cox and Jon Ward.
Thus it was likely — and hardly surprising — that a citizen question would be posed at a presidential press conference. Given the news, it happened to come from Tehran, not Tennessee.
So the complaints of several Washington reporters are not only odd, but hard to take at face value. It is particularly rich for reporters to protest that the White House told Pitney he might be tapped for a question. Every day, a few top White House correspondents have special access in press briefings, while many reporters are never called on (seating charts are powerful). And many Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview. (Readers would be interested — media criticism and scrutiny tends to draw traffic across the spectrum.)
Unfortunately, the media’s complaints threaten to overshadow the minor progress made on Tuesday. (Imagine that.) By injecting a citizen question into a live presidential press conference, Pitney cracked the Beltway boundaries on who gets to interrogate the President. It matters who is empowered in this rarefied role — demanding answers from the President on the spot, on air, shaping the framing and priorities of our political discourse. And it’s past time that regular citizens, from across the country and around the world, get a turn.
UPDATE: Today Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald discusses the import of having an "actual Iranian" ask a question at the press conference, and features a new, must-see video featuring one of the reporters who has been complaining about the citizen question.
Ari Melber wrote about citizen questions for President Obama in The People’s Press Conference, which ran in the April 6 edition of The Nation.