HuffPost's Nico Pitney No "Administration Plant," But Jeff Gannon Was

The New York Times' Peter Baker posted a semi-defense Thursday of Barack Obama for pre-arranging a question from a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post website at his Tuesday White House press conference. The White House gave Nico Pitney, who has been monitoring Internet traffic from protestors in Iran, a heads-up the night before that he might be called upon.


Pitney, a reporter for Huffington Post, got the second question of the day from Obama, right after the Associated Press. Here's the exchange:


President Barack Obama: Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from the Huffington Post.

Nico Pitney, Huffington Post: Thank you Mr. President.

Obama: Nico, I know that you, and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?

Pitney: Yes, I did, I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian. We solicited questions last night from people who are still courageous enough to be communicating online, and one of them wanted to ask you this: Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards?

Baker began his Thursday posting:

Here is the dirty little secret about White House news conferences: The president almost always knows the questions in advance.

But here is the rest of that secret: That is not because White House officials are planting questions or reporters are colluding with them.

But the Times has in the past implied the Bush White House was planting questions, during its coverage of the Jeff Gannon controversy in 2005. And while Baker didn't seem 100% comfortable with the ethics of the Pitney situation, he certainly did not call Pitney, who asked Obama a challenging question, "an administration plant."

That was the label Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal affixed on "Jeff Gannon" (real name James Guckert) of the obscure news websites GopUsa and Talon News. Gannon caught the attention of Bush-hating bloggers in January 2005 when he accused Democrats, in a question to Bush at a televised White House news conference, as having "divorced themselves from reality."


Blumenthal wrote on February 20, 2005:

The operator of an activist Republican Web site and news service said Friday night that he had known for two years that his White House correspondent went by two identities. But the operator, Robert R. Eberle, denied in an interview that the correspondent, Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James D. Guckert, was an administration plant or was given preferential treatment as a Republican partisan to ask soft questions at briefings.

Blumenthal also revealed Gannon's interesting personal life and challenged the journalistic credibility of his employers challenged.


Anne Kornblut's February 18, 2005 story also seethed with hostility:


Democrats have demanded to know how a man who was apparently a partisan worker obtained press credentials and special access to the briefings. He was often called on by officials, including President Bush, and asked softball questions.

Apparently one is only allowed to pitch "softball questions" to Democrats. Both Kornblut and Blumenthal delved into wholly irrelevant details about Gannon's personal life.

More from Baker's Thursday post:

In fact, despite widespread speculation to the contrary, the White House does not give reporters much if any notice that they will get called on, and reporters almost never tell the White House what they will ask. But everyone has a pretty good idea anyway. In the day leading up to a White House news conference, a president and his staff typically spend hours gaming out likely questions and rehearing responses.

The truth is, it is not all that hard for a White House to figure out what will be asked. The news of the day usually makes at least the opening queries pretty obvious. And a president's press secretary spends an hour each day fielding questions on camera from the same reporters, so it becomes clear what lines of inquiry are on their minds. Veterans of the last several White Houses have always said they were able to correctly forecast nearly all of the questions ahead of time, though not necessarily the precise wording.

All this has come up again because President Obama called on Nico Pitney, a blogger for the left-leaning Huffington Post Web site, in an orchestrated move during Tuesday's news conference. As Kate Phillips outlined on the Caucus blog, Mr. Pitney has been writing extensively about the protests in Iran and soliciting questions from Iranians, so the White House asked him to come to the news conference so the president could call on him and address an inquiry forwarded from an Iranian.

The move generated complaints from Mr. Obama's critics about the staging of an ostensibly unscripted news conference and deep consternation among White House reporters worried about the increasingly blurry line between traditional news organizations and ideological outlets. On the other side, it generated plenty of scorn from new media representatives about privileged old-line media whining about its turf and missing the profound changes of the information age.