The Obama Administration, during a recent press conference, did something that no previous administration did: it orchestrated questions.
I lived in DC for four years, and like everyone in DC, I had a love/hate relationship with the Washington Post. I hated the at times snide and arrogant liberalism that permeates the paper like water permeates the ocean, but there were always those journalists and columnists who were and are shining examples of what their profession out to be.
Instead of what it generally has become.
Dana Milbank is one of those (the former, not the latter), as you can see here.
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." 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.
This is a further data point to understand how the Obama Administration is shaping up: they view the press as to be manipulated, to be organized, to be turned into something sycophantic, resembling not a free press, but rather a captive press like that of the former Soviet Union or the press in China. In other words, a political tool.
Rahm Emanuel grinning shows his contempt for the press, pride and joy in his ability to manipulate and control them. He is controlling access, he is controlling content, he is controlling which careers to make and which careers to break: these are not the actions of a man working with the press, but rather the actions of a man controlling the press. Welcome to Chicago.
"The Obama Show" was the hottest ticket in town yesterday. Forty-five minutes before the start, there were no fewer than 107 people crammed into the narrow aisles, in addition to those in the room's 42 seats. Japanese and Italian could be heard coming from the tangle of elbows, cameras and compressed bodies: "You've got to move! . . . Oh, God, don't step on my foot!" Some had come just for a glimpse of celebrity. And they wanted to know all about him. "As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting," McClatchy News's Margaret Talev empathized with the president before asking him how much he smokes.
The host of "The Obama Show" dispatched with similar ease a challenge from CBS's Chip Reid, asking whether his hardening line on Iran was inspired by John McCain. "What do you think?" Obama replied with a big grin. That brought the house down. And the studio audience laughed again when ABC's Jake Tapper tried to get Obama to answer another reporter's question that he had dodged. "Are you the ombudsman for the White House press corps?" the president cracked.
But rather than answer substantially, President Obama is entertaining the crowd, playing them, ensuring first and foremost that his press conferences become trivial, that he cannot be threatened by the press, that he's in control. And the vast majority of the press? Able and willing participants in what is increasingly becoming a three-ring farce.
The laughter had barely subsided when the host made another joke about Tapper's reference to Obama's "Spock-like language about the logic of the health-care plan."
"The reference to Spock, is that a crack on my ears?" the president asked.
Isn't he just so adorable?
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. 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.
If this had been the Bush Administration there'd be scores of irate reports on how the press is being manipulated and abused. President Obama and Rahm Emanuel are playing the Washington Press Corps for the fools that they apparently have become.
Why doesn't he simply trivilize the whole thing and simply invite only "journalists" from People magazine and the other trivial wastes of dead trees that pass for magazines and newspapers in the United States? While I have no desire to cast aspersions on Macarena Vidal's competence as a journalist, giving her a seat usually assigned to publications like Barrons, International Business Daily, Forbes, Business Week, The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal or any other number of publications that actually cover Washington for business, rather than for someone relatively unknown to ask a pre-arranged question, points to the role that the Press will play for the Obama Administration.
But what does this imply, and why is this a further data point?
The implication, of course, is that the Obama Administration is not interested in being open to the public, but will control not merely the access to the President, but first and foremost will control who is allowed to inform the public. By turning it into entertainment, President Obama is creating an image - sorry, he's been doing that from Day 1, hence: maintining the image - of someone who is so perfect for the job that he's relaxed and cool under all and any conditions, the perfect authority figure, the man in control of everything. Nothing is so dangerous for such personality types as a question answered, or even the posing of a question not approved. He is a control freak, wanting to leave nothing open and uncontrolled.
Why is this important? Because this means that Presidential press conferences will be nothing more than orchestrated farces of the kind that you see only in countries who cannot afford a free press.
Watch for the following: financial help for ABC, whose ratings are the worst of any of the networks and whose reputation is being actively trashed not merely by the "journalists" who are going along with the Day of Worship, but also the White House who would even contemplate singling out one network to favor.
Once again, welcome to Chicago, where nothing political ever happens by accident...