President Barack Obama made news at a press conference last week – by planting a question with a blogger, not by offering anything new in spite of taking his sharpest questions to date.
The sharper edge of reporters’ questions had much to do with the setting, one White House press corps member said afterward: “It was our turf, in our seats … no formality of the East Room or even (the) Rose Garden. So I think when we're comfortable, we're more likely to fire back at him for follow-ups.”
Obama coming unarmed with news led to more probing, analytical-style questions which can always tie up presidents.
The planted query (the White House denies it being planted) came from Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney; an administration official phoned him ahead of time to suggest that Obama would take a particular question from him.
“Planted questions undermine the integrity of the process,” says Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
If the president wanted to offer a response to a communication from an Iranian citizen, Rozell explains, that would have been fine. “But citizens are led to believe that the questions in the press conferences are not known in advance by the president and his staff and that the process has some degree of spontaneity.”
To be sure, presidents and their staffs spend serious time anticipating likely questions and preparing answers. They have a really good record of being able to anticipate most of what a president is asked by reporters; not a lot of surprises occur.
Every so often, in response to an unanticipated question, a president will give a candid answer – and then the press conference becomes especially newsworthy.
But if “the questions are planted, then what is the point, really?” Rozell asks.
Presidential historian Joel Goldstein says the press should play an independent role and its independence is compromised if reporters simply serve up questions provided to them.
“I think there are real concerns regarding the future of the media,” he says. “Bloggers provide access to many (readers), yet much of what then passes for journalism lacks the professionalism of the good political reporters and columnists, whose experience provides a context in which to present current events.”
Part of the problem, though, is with Americans. Just look at our obsession this news cycle regarding the Gov. Mark Sanford story.