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CBS’s Major Garrett defends controversial question for President Obama on Iran deal

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CBS News’s Major Garrett isn’t backing down in the face of criticism about how he handled his question yesterday in a news conference with President Obama. “Look, the position I’m in, I asked the question I asked and I can’t take it back. The president believed I was suggesting he was content with the Americans’ captivity. That wasn’t the basis of my question,” said Garrett this morning on “CBS This Morning” in response to a question from show co-host Charlie Rose.

Criticism of Garrett as a grandstanding and irresponsible journalist cropped up on TV and social media yesterday following a showdown in the White House’s East Room. After making some remarks about the Iranian nuclear deal, Obama invited questions from the assembled press corps. Garrett premised his question on the three Americans currently being detained in Iran — a group whose status wasn’t tied to the deal. “As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges that, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown,” said Garrett. “Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”

President Obama was quite clearly offended by the question and took a swing at its premise: “I’ve got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions. The notion that I am ‘content’ as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better,” Obama said, before rephrasing the question and answering it: “Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes, ‘You know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.'”

A strong response there. More from the president: “And by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families.”

Yesterday the Erik Wemple Blog defended Garrett on the grounds that his defenders were seeking deference to presidential authority. CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash commented that there’s a “fine line, especially…standing in the East Room,” a suggestion that there are limits to media persnicketiness in such grand surroundings.

The “CBS This Morning” crew — laudably — pressed their colleague on his inquiry. “Do you believe that the president is content to leave the conscience of the nation unaccounted for?” asked Rose. Garrett returned the volley: “I don’t. And the whole point of the question, Charlie, was, why were these four Americans not accounted for in the context of negotiating a wide range of issues with the Iranians? Remember, in the final hours of this deal, the Iranians put other things on the table that hadn’t been previously discussed: the arms embargo on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles. If those could be introduced, it seems to me it’s reasonable to ask the commander-in-chief if other issues on the American side could have been introduced. I suggested there might have been one: the fate of four Americans. I stand by that.”

Garrett did concede that he was an “imperfect articulator” of questions to the president.

Decorum in forums with the president of the United States arises as a public matter every now and then, triggered by some journalist who’s either driven by accountability or a boor, depending on your perspective or perhaps ideology. Back in June 2012, Neil Munro, then of the Daily Caller, interrupted/heckled President Obama during a presentation on immigration policy. “It’s not time for questions, sir,” responded the president. Press deans howled about Munro’s inappropriateness, though Daily Caller head Tucker Carlson said, in part, “A good reporter gets the story. We’re proud of Neil Munro.”