How did Huffington Post, a Web site featuring bloggers who lean overtly to the left, become President Barack Obama's new best friend in the media?
At a recent press conference, Obama shook up the print, television and radio establishment when he called on Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein to ask a question, which for the record, focused on how the president stood on a proposal to prosecute members of the Bush administration.
Was it an example of Obama recognizing a scrappy beacon of the increasingly prominent Internet journalism community? Or was it a way to thank to an organization that was in his corner when he ran against Republican Sen. John McCain?
Leveling the playing field
With one swift gesture, Obama placed Huffington Post on the nation's big stage, right alongside the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the television networks. It was a clear indication that this White House, which has vowed to be all-inclusive, was determined to extend courtesy and respect to a -- gasp! -- new media company known for its blogging.
"I have noticed the reaction to it," Stein told me. "It's not unexpected. There had been a tradition of which reporters get to ask questions to the president. It's historical, and worth noting. I'm happy. It's a refection of how the media landscape is changing in a good way. There are more outlets, different viewpoints and different questions."
For veteran media watchers, Obama's action was a signal, at the very least, that he would be doing things differently than his predecessor.
"President Obama calling on a Huffington Post reporter is only 'revolutionary' if our frame of reference is President George W. Bush," noted Ken Auletta, the New Yorker media critic.
Or, perhaps, Obama could be repaying a debt. During the Obama-McCain presidential campaign, Huffington Post was one of the Democrats' staunchest media allies. Huffington Post made Salon look like the National Review -- and that's perfectly fine.
Just as Fox News (which is, like MarketWatch, owned by News Corp.) and General Electric's MSNBC divide the political audience on cable TV, Huffington Post shrewdly staked out its Internet territory for liberals.
Understandably, Stein is sensitive to suggestions that he and Huffington Post give Obama a free pass.
"We have written critical stories on the Obama administration and his campaign before, including breaking the 'Bittergate' piece about his comments on guns and religion in San Francisco," Stein said.
For his part, Stein could do without being branded a trailblazer among bloggers. He prefers to view it as the administration's acknowledgement that Huffington Post is a legitimate alternative to newspapers, magazines, TV stations and radio outlets.
"We do good reporting and we break news," he said. "Huffington Post has earned legitimacy."
That point was confirmed Wednesday night when Arianna Huffington, founder and editor-in-chief of the operation, discussed the financial crisis and yukked it up with Jay Leno, a sure sign that Huffington has become a celebrity journalist.
In fact, Huffington Post threw a ball during the inauguration festivities last month in Washington. It was one of the best-attended parties in town.
Perhaps a lot of the debate centers on professional jealousy. Huffington Post has come a long way in a short time. It's now part of the White House's dialogue with the American people. Suddenly, it matters what the blogs on the site are saying about the president.
In fact, you might say that Tina Brown's Daily Beast, Michael Wolff's Newser and Sharon Waxman's The Wrap have all followed Huffington Post's lead online.
I believe it's wrong for naysayers to suggest that Obama was helping out Huffington Post. I'm a fan. The site does good, solid work.
Stein just shakes his head when someone implies hat Obama only wanted to show his appreciation for Arianna Huffington's loyalty.
"That's silly," Stein said. "He's not paying me back in any way."
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Did Obama allow Stein to ask a question because he was acknowledging Huffington Post's strong journalism record or paying off a debt?
By Jon Friedman