Battle of the Briefing Room

Post media critic Howard Kurtz discusses S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford's televised admission of an extramarital affair, and the reaction of the press to the announcement.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009; 10:59 AM

I was traveling during the presidential presser yesterday, so I had the very 2009 experience of following it afterward on Twitter.

I quickly learned of the two noteworthy moments that President Obama had with the assembled reporters. One was when Fox's Major Garrett said of Obama's suddenly toughened rhetoric on Iran: "What took you so long?" The other was when McClatchy's Margaret Talev asked, "How many cigarettes a day do you now smoke?"

"I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," the president replied before acknowledging that it was "an interesting human interest story."

But in the strangest bit of orchestration I can recall at one of these events, the White House arranged for a Huffington Post reporter to ask a preordained question, and did nothing to hide it. In fact, after the first question, Obama said: "Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post." And then the president invited him to ask the question he was expecting: "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 asked a question posed by an Iranian after the liberal Web site solicited such queries online.

Ana Marie Cox soon tweeted: "If WH knows who they're going to call on a day before, WHY INVITE US ALL? Waste of time, energy--and hope. Sniff."

(For the record, while I can't say it has never happened, past administrations did not make a practice of telling reporters in advance who would be called upon.)

Obama used humor effectively, such as when he responded to Jake Tapper's line about his "Spock-like language" in describing the health plan by asking: "Is that a crack on my ears?"

Overall, a 12:30 news conference, unlike the past prime-time extravaganzas, isn't going to amount to much. The White House clearly wanted to position Obama as a more fervent critic of the violence in Iran after days of getting smacked around for his alleged timidity. That is the lead story the administration strategists wanted, and that is what they got--mostly.

NYT: "President Obama hardened his tone toward Iran on Tuesday, condemning the government for its crackdown against election protesters and accusing Iran's leaders of fabricating charges against the United States.

"In his strongest comments since the crisis erupted 10 days ago, Mr. Obama used unambiguous language to assail the Iranian government during a news conference at the White House, calling himself 'appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days.' . . .

"Yet beyond muscular words, Mr. Obama has limited tools for bringing pressure to bear on the Iranian government, which for years has been brushing off international calls for it to curb its nuclear program."

USA Today: "President Obama delivered his harshest criticisms of Iran, saying Tuesday he is 'appalled and outraged' by the killings of protesters and questioning for the first time the 'legitimacy' of the June 12 presidential election.

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