White House solicited question on Iran from writer

White House officials phoned a blogger from a popular left-leaning Web site on Monday evening to tell him that President Barack Obama had been impressed with his online reporting about Iran. Could the writer pass along a question from an Iranian during the president’s news conference on Tuesday?

Of course. The next day, The Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney, the Web site’s national editor, got a prime location in the White House Briefing Room and was the second reporter Obama picked for a question.

“Nico, I know that you ? and all across the Internet ? we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran,” Obama said without trying to hide that he knew the crux of the question. “I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

According to Pitney, what Obama got was a way to answer an Iranian’s question without allegations that he was directly trying to influence a tense situation.

That logic, however, seemed to fracture later in the day when the White House posted a transcript of Obama’s remarks in Farsi on its Twitter page and an Arabic and Farsi version at WhiteHouse.gov.

White House officials and Pitney dismissed suggestions that the question was a plant. Obama didn’t know the question Pitney was prepared to ask, they say, and officials didn’t approve the question beforehand.

Pitney asked Obama what he described as a question from one of the people “still courageous enough to be communicating online” about whether Obama would recognized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, or if such a move would be a betrayal of protesters.

“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,” Obama said, repeating a familiar refrain. “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.”

White House officials say they wanted to highlight the role of the Internet in the protests that followed Iran’s elections as well as reach out directly to Iranians.

“Given his substantive contacts and reporting in Iran, answering Pitney’s question seemed like the best way to communicate to the Iranian people since there’s not an Iranian press corps here in Washington,” said deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, who escorted Pitney to the news conference and told other reporters to make room for him.

Grumblings about favored reporters are not unique to the Obama White House. There were suspicions ? never proved ? that President George W. Bush’s press operations often planted friendly questions in his news conferences.

Obama called on a political writer from the Huffington Post during his first news conference. And given the Web’s influence in organizing and reporting on the postelection dispute in Iran, Pitney’s selection made sense, officials said.

Pitney’s work at the Web site combined other news agencies’ reporting and his own conversation with people in Iran via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It quickly became a one-stop source for minute-by-minute news coming from Iran, compiled from uploaded photos and 140-character blogs.

The White House similarly used social media sites to reinforce Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. The tech-savvy administration distributed a transcript of that speech in 13 languages other than English.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.