Thursday, July 02, 2009


Every president since Kennedy has tried to manipulate the news media. It is what they are supposed to do. And it is the job of the news media to resist, however futilely, and to bring to public attention the attempts.

As many readers know, I used to cover the White House and was an active, sometimes abrasive, participant in the daily briefings by the press secretary. But as in the production of sausages and of legislation, the process by which news is created ought not to be viewed by the weak-stomached. When the daily interchange between journalists and the White House press secretary went on TV some years ago, things went to hell, and it diminishes everyone.

The function of the White House press is not to dig up dirt or investigate government programs. It is to report what the president and his administration are doing on a short-term basis and, most important, to hold the president accountable by asking and receiving on-the-record answers from his spokespeople.

President Obama, however, is taking news management to a new level by selecting reporters and advising them they will be called upon at a press conference, staging town meetings the way Richard Nixon did at the behest of media adviser Roger Ailes and even arranging for a particular question to be asked.

It is his right to do so and it may advance his policies, which I am generally in favor of. But thanks to my mentor Helen Thomas and CBS’ Chip Reid, the public now knows how this manipulation of public opinion is being conducted.

The following Is from the July 1 White House briefing:

Q At today's town hall meeting, questions coming in on YouTube
and Twitter and such -- who decides what questions will be asked?

MR. GIBBS: I think a group over at New Media is shuffling through
questions. I think if you go on -- I did not do this today, but I think if
you go on our Web site you'll see some of those questions. And I think,
Chip, at the end of the day, when you -- I think the questions that will be read
to the President -- obviously he'll take some questions from the audience there
-- I think will be a representative sample of the issues in this debate that
we're dealing with.

Q And the audience is all preselected, right?

MR. GIBBS: No, we usually just generally hand out tickets on a
first come, first serve basis.

Q Well, I think in this case, the people were invited either by the White House or by the university -- I mean, invited by this community college, as it was explained to us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, if the university is --

Q It just feels very tightly controlled. It feels -- I mean, the concept of a town hall I
think is to have a open public forum, and this sounds like a very tightly
controlled audience and a list of questions. Why do it that why? Why
not open it up to the public?

MR. GIBBS: How about we do this -- how about you can ask me that question tomorrow based on what questions were asked rather than preselecting your question based on something that may or may not come through.

Q But why pre-select? Why not just open it up for people and allow any question to come in?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, I think if you get on your computer from your e-mail address
Q I have. I have.

MR. GIBBS: Have you sent in your question?

Q I think that would be inappropriate. This is for the public.

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, I'm confused -- are you not a member of the public?

Q Well, I think if you were going to allow questions from the press you'd have us in a
prominent position over there and allow us to ask questions -- you haven't done

MR. GIBBS: Let's not get into the notion of where you'd be sitting -- (laughter) -- if I let you ask a question, but
Q Well out of shouting range.

MR. GIBBS: Well, but you could e-mail.

Q Would you put my question in there? I don't think so.

MR. GIBBS: Maybe. Have you e-mailed?

Q I mean, this is a town hall.


GIBBS: It's a little -- if you haven't e-mailed.

Q This is an open forum for the public to ask questions, but it's not really

MR. GIBBS: I couldn't agree more. Q But it's not open.

MR. GIBBS: Based on what?

Q Based on the information that your staff gave us on how the audience and the questions are being selected.

MR. GIBBS: The questions are being selected by people that e-mail on Facebook and Twitter.

Q Well, they're not deciding what questions actually get in.

MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, I appreciate, again --

Q It just feels completely controlled
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate, again --

Q -- in a way unlike his town meetings all the campaign and --

MR. GIBBS: I appreciate the pre-selected question on your part.

Q Will there be dissenting views --

Q Yes, how about that?

MR. GIBBS: I think that's a very safe bet. But, again, let's -- how about we do this? I promise we will interrupt the AP's tradition of asking the first question. I will let you ask me a question tomorrow as to whether you thought the questions at the town hall meeting that the President conducted at Annandale --

Q I'm perfectly happy to
Q That's not his point. The point is the control
Q Exactly.

Q -- we have never had that in the White House. And we have had some, but not
Q This White House.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I was going to say, I'll let you amend her question.

Q I'm amazed -- I'm amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and --

MR. GIBBS: Helen, you haven't even heard the questions.

Q It doesn't matter. It's the process.

Q You have left open --

Q Even if there's a tough question, it's a question coming from somebody who was invited or was screened, or the question was screened.

Q It's shocking. It's really shocking.

MR. GIBBS: Chip, let's have this discussion at the conclusion of the town hall meeting. How about that?

Q Okay.
MR. GIBBS: I think --

Q No, no, no, we're having it now --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'd be happy to have it

Q It's a pattern.

MR. GIBBS: Which question did you object to at the town hall meeting, Helen?

Q It's a pattern. It isn't the question --

MR. GIBBS: What's a pattern?

Q It's a pattern of controlling the press.

MR. GIBBS: How so? Is there any evidence currently going on that I'm
controlling the press -- poorly, I might add. (Laughter.)

Q Your formal engagements are pre-packaged.

MR. GIBBS: How so?

Q Well, and controlling the public --

Q How so? By calling reporters the night before to tell them they're going to be called on. That is shocking.

MR. GIBBS: We had this discussion ad nauseam and
Q Of course you would because you don't have any answers.
MR. GIBBS: Well, because I didn't know you were going to ask a
question, Helen. Go ahead.

Q Well, you should have.

Q Thank you for your support.
MR. GIBBS: That's good. Have you e-mailed your question today?

Q I don't have to e-mail it. I can tell you right now what I want to
ask. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I don't doubt that at all, Helen. I don't doubt that at all.

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