The Sam Stein breakthrough

THE SAM STEIN BREAKTHROUGH…. During last night’s White House press conference, the president fielded 13 questions. The first two went to wire services (AP and Reuters). Then came the networks (CBS, NBC, Bloomberg, ABC, CNN and Fox News), and print (New York Times, Washington Post, and Hearst). NPR got the last question, but between Helen Thomas and Mara Liasson, Obama raised a few eyebrows when he said, “Sam Stein, Huffington Post.”

It was something of a breakthrough. Stein, after all, is a reporter for an online news outlet.

The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz reported, “Obama made a bit of history by calling on the first blogger at such a session, Sam Stein of the liberal Huffington Post.” I don’t think that’s entirely right. In January 2005, then-President Bush called on right-wing blogger Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, who asked for the president’s thoughts on Democrats who are “divorced from reality.” In this sense, Stein isn’t the first blogger to be called on at a White House press conference; he’s the first credible and legitimate blogger to be called on at a White House press conference.

Indeed, the differences are important. When the conservative Gannon/Guckert got to ask the president a question, he threw a rather pathetic softball, intended to help the president look good. When the Huffington Post‘s Stein stood up last night, he asked an excellent question that the president didn’t want to answer, on an issue most news outlets prefer to ignore:

“Today, Senator Patrick Leahy announced that he wants to set up a truth and reconciliation 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?”

Whereas the Washington Post‘s reporter asked, “What’s your reaction to Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?” Stein’s question was one of the tougher inquiries Obama faced. At least as interesting as the “historic” nature of the exchange is why Stein asked a better question than most of his colleagues.

What’s more, Greg Sargent raises a very good point about the sea-change in the media dynamic.

[T]he real innovation isn’t in what Obama did. It’s in what outlets like HuffPo are doing. Places like HuffPo and my alma mater, Talking Points Memo, are striving to demonstrate that it needn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive to care along with your audience what happens in politics — to have a predisposition towards one outcome or another — while simultaneously doing real journalism. […]

Stein writes for an outlet whose predispositions are well known, but he produces fair, even-handed, thoroughly reported pieces. In other words, he’s a legit reporter. And so ultimately it’s perfectly natural that Obama took his question.