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White House Defends Huffington Post Question

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he has "no apologies" for what many White House reporters saw as the planting of a questioner who was called on by President Obama at yesterday's news conference. Gibbs said the White House decision to invite The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney was the best way to convey information from an Iranian who had communicated with the liberal Web site.

Defending the White House action, Gibbs said, "I think it was important and the president thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that."

In today's sometimes contentious briefing with reporters, Gibbs insisted, "That question wasn't planted."

President Obama clearly knew the subject, as he set it up when he chose the Huffington Post representative as the second questioner at the nationally broadcast news conference. Mr. Obama said, "Nico, I know you, and all across the Internet, have been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran. I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating from the Internet. Do you have a question?"

Pitney, who had been escorted by a deputy press secretary to prime real estate in the crowded briefing room, did indeed have a question. "That's right," he said. "I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian." Pitney told CBS News he had received a phone call from the White House advising him to attend the briefing. He said he was not promised that he would be able to ask the question of the president. But the thought should have occurred to him when he received the highly unusual invitation and escort to the briefing room shortly before the president entered.

At today's briefing, I asked Gibbs if the White House strategy sent a message to the American public and the world about the kind of free flow and pure questioning that's expected at presidential news conferences. Gibbs replied, "Well, I think it did nothing more than underscore that free flow. That was a question from an Iranian, in Iran, using the same type of manner and method to get that information as I guess many of you and virtually every one of your outlets has done, because in this country we enjoy the freedom of the press."

Other reporters asked Gibbs if the episode had contributed to a perception that the White House pre-arranges questions to the president. The spokesman said, "Every one of you have talked about the reality, so I'm not going to talk about the perception."

Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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