Monday, June 29, 2009

And Now, For The Question Actually Posed

Call it bad blood between Dana Milbank and Nico Pitney, jealous rivalry between traditional media and the blogosphere, a fight between old media and new media, or the male equivalent of a "cat fight." Or call it just good, clean fun between two credible and accomplished journalists. Either way, the dustup between Milbank and Pitney on Sunday's Reliable Sources on CNN can now be brought to your living room, bedroom, family room, or office (or anywhere you have a laptop) via the miracle of youtube (video below).

Here is the transcript of the discussion, which, for some odd reason, tangentially included's Amanda Carpenter:

KURTZ: A presidential news conference usually proceeds from the AP reporter, to the network correspondents, to the major newspaper writers. But President Obama set off plenty of chatter at this week's presser by giving the second question to a "Huffington Post" blogger. It wasn't just the selection of Nico Pitney -- Obama has called on "The Huffington Post" before -- but the way the president seemed to invite a particular question.


OBAMA: Nico, I know that you and across the Internet we've been seeing a lo 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. But I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.

"Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad..."


KURTZ: All right.

Nico Pitney, you said the White House notified you that you would probably get a question at the news conference. Everyone assumes what we just saw was orchestrated.

PITNEY: No. From beginning to end, there was no planning involved. I was the one who posted that I was going to be soliciting -- that I was soliciting questions from Iranians. I chose the question.

The reason President Obama made that comment is because he was trying to make a point that he was taking a question from an Iranian. And it's interesting that Dana, of all people, wrote this column very negatively. I mean, this is a person, Dana, who, when he had a chance to ask Obama a question, he approached him in the hall during the campaign and asked him not one, but multiple questions about how he looked in a bathing suit.

I mean, that to me is pathetic, and I would -- you couldn't stage manage me into that, Dana.

MILBANK: Well, Nico has some -- evidently, some very interesting things to do.

What I have never done in my life, Howie, is worked in collusion with an administration, whether it's this one or another one. I believe that whether it's Nico Pitney, with "The Huffington Post," or whether it's Carl Cameron, with Fox News, the White House should not be calling somebody the night before saying, we are going to call on you if you ask a question on a particular subject asked in a certain way.

PITNEY: But I was... MILBANK: Nico, the night before, sent out an e-mail to his colleagues -- "Some big news. The White House called earlier this evening and asked if I could ask a question of President Obama at his press conference tomorrow on behalf of an Iranian. I'm about to post a solicitation to the blog Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. It seems fairly like that this will happen, but as they told me, this is not 100 percent."

PITNEY: This is exactly as I described it. I posted an initial solicitation.

MILBANK: At the request of the White House.


MILBANK: No, it says right here in your e-mail that that's what you did.

PITNEY: No, it doesn't. In fact, it's exactly what I wrote...

MILBANK: "I'm about to post a solicitation to the blog Facebook, Twitter," after hearing from the White House.

PITNEY: Facebook, Twitter, exactly. So, my solicitation was merely over e-mail.

When I found out that the White House was going to potentially take this question, I went to a Farsi language social network site, to Twitter using a Farsi message, to Facebook. I tried to -- if I was going to have that opportunity, I was going to canvass as many Iranians as possible.

MILBANK: That's fine.

PITNEY: So it is -- and, you know, for -- this is someone -- Dana's column...

KURTZ: Do you think there's some jealousy involved by maybe the establishment in the fact that you got that very prominent second question?

PITNEY: Oh, I mean, I think it's jealousy. I think it's hypocrisy.

You know, Dana wrote a column, as his colleague at "The Washington Post," Greg Sargent, pointed out, hailing the "Mission Accomplished" banner moment in May, 2003, the day after.


PITNEY: I mean, it's...

MILBANK: Look, there's plenty of fiction here, but I brought some other -- shall we go through the record here, Nico?

PITNEY: Go through what record? MILBANK: Your Web site was complaining about I was not holding the Bush White House to account. I'd like to say that here's a full list of documentation of me holding the Bush White House to account.

PITNEY: Well, I'm not sure where...

MILBANK: Your colleagues at "The Huffington Post."

Let's pose -- can we just pose one question, Nico? If the White House called up Fox News and said, "Major Garrett, we will call on you tomorrow if you ask a question about health care, and you ask it in a certain way?" Would you say that's OK?

PITNEY: They didn't say in a certain way. See, this is dishonest. And it's been dishonesty and errors from the beginning.

Your initial piece on this posted an hour after the press conference, had two errors, which you acknowledged to me an e-mail. You said you had corrected them. It took seven hours.

MILBANK: Is that right, Nico?

PITNEY: And the signal is you are very quick to malign and very slow to correct.

MILBANK: Look, Howie, I can't deal with fiction on this show. I mean...

KURTZ: All right. I'm going to -- you two are going to have to take this outside, because I want to get Amanda Carpenter in.

Does any of this smell like collusion to you?

CARPENTER: Well, I can tell you from -- I hear a number of claims from the right side of the issue on this, and they say that Nico is a person who worked on Democratic campaigns, then went on to go work for the Center for American Progress, where he ran a very partisan blog called "Thing Progress," and then was asked by the White House to ask those questions. So he's not -- I mean, the question was fair.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think he's not denying that you have left of center views.

PITNEY: No. I mean, I think the question is the quality of the question.

CARPENTER: But the concern from the right side of things is...

PITNEY: Jeff Gannon asked softballs. I asked a legitimate question.

CARPENTER: I'm not saying you did anything wrong, but I think the administration calling you beforehand, thinking that you are probably going to ask something sympathetic, escorting you to the front of the press room, to then ask a question in a place where everyone should get a fair crack at the president, is unfair.

PITNEY: I mean, the question, again...

KURTZ: It was a legitimate question. Let's make that clear.

PITNEY: It was a legitimate question. Sure.


PITNEY: It was be a strange conspiracy, considering Obama dodged the question.

KURTZ: Well, there's no guarantee you get an answer.

There is a long, and less than honorable, tradition of presidents trying to manipulate the media, perhaps none more so than Barack Obama's immediate predecessor. And if Pitney were going to be granted a question, obviously it would be about Iran. Nevertheless, he was not told to "ask a question on a particular subject asked in a certain way" (emphasis mine). And as a blogger at has explained:

Just to put this into perspective, think about this. Nico Pitney has spent the last two weeks tirelessly developing sources from inside Iran, aggregating every relevant story available on the internet through every available form of the new communication technology and synthesizing one of the most most difficult and important foreign policy stories of the decade.

But Pitney, at the end, made the most relevant point, noting "it was a strange conspiracy, considering Obama dodged the question."

If you hadn't heard the actual question asked by The Huffington Post's Pitney, you would have thought the question was a gimme (Republican chairman Limbaugh: "And here of course is Obama's scripted response."). But Obama did, in fact, wisely dodge the question, stating (responding, to be generous):

Well, look, we didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizeable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance, a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election.

And so, ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that's why I've been very clear: Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government.

What we can do is to say unequivocally that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with peaceful dissent, that spans cultures, spans borders, and what we've been seeing over the Internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles.

I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it.

Huh? What was that all about? Not the question, for sure, which Obama would have addressed if he- or any President- had safely been able to. Clearly (not a description of the reply, to be sure), it would be hard to imagine a more difficult question for a President to answer. Which is probably why Pitney answered it- and should be praised, alongside whatever Iranian gave him the question.

But more importantly- is Pitney related to this guy? Or this guy?

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