After President Obama’s first prime time press conference last night, Bill O’Reilly asked former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer for his reaction. O’Reilly noted that Obama had a prepared list of reporters from whom he planned to take questions. Fleischer explained that former President Bush used a similar method to avoid taking questions from “dot coms and other oddballs.” In response, O’Reilly suggested that Obama’s “oddball” screening was perhaps not as effective as Bush’s because the President called on the Huffington Post:
O’REILLY: George Bush came in with a list of guys he was going to call on?
FLEISCHER: Yes, I used to prepare it for him. I would give him a grid, show him where every reporter is seated. And there are some reporters, you know, in that briefing room, you can imagine, Bill, you get a lot of dot coms and other oddballs who come in there. They’re screened.
O’REILLY: Like the Huffington Post. Now it gets called on.
FLEISCHER: And I used to seat them all in one section. I would call it “Siberia.” And I told the president, “Don’t call on Siberia.”
If Bush was relying on Fleischer to screen the “dotcoms and oddballs,” he was poorly served. Take, for example, case of Jeff Gannon, the male escort-turned-White House correspondent for the right-wing news outlet Talon News. The White House press office granted Gannon access to the White House under an assumed name and with no background check. Once Gannon got in the door under Fleischer’s watch in 2003, he was called on by Bush at a press conference in January 2005. Gannon lobbed Bush a softball:
GANNON: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. … Yet in the same breath they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. … [H]ow are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
By contrast, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein put Obama on the spot, asking him to clarify his somewhat murky stance on investigating and possibly prosecuting any misdeeds of the Bush administration for its torture policies:
STEIN: Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy announced that he wants to set up a truth and reconcilation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration. He said that “before you turn the page you have to read the page first.” Do you agree with such a proposal? And are you willing to rule out right here and now any prosecution of Bush administration officials?
And while Obama did rely on a prepared list of reporters to take questions from last night, he’s clearly not inclined to dispatch reporters that are generally critical of his policies to “Siberia.” Indeed, last night Obama took a question from Fox News. Bush, meanwhile, completed two terms without ever giving an interview to the New York Times.
Ana Marie Cox writes that there was “lots of grumbling” after the press conference about Huffington Post getting a question.