White House, media relationship strained

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he doesn’t think the administration’s relationship with the media has gotten any better or worse since President Obama was sworn into office.

But, in the past few weeks, the White House has come under fire from a number of different media outlets. The complaints include charges of favoritism, a lack of promised transparency and planting questioners at press conferences.

“The truth is there’s always a tension, but that’s just part of the job,” Gibbs told The Hill, noting that there’s “always a bit of push and pull.”

Gibbs waxed philosophically about the relationship between the White House and the media in his West Wing office Wednesday. But shortly before his interview with The Hill, he got hammered during his daily briefing as reporters repeatedly displayed their skepticism about a question Obama granted to the Huffington Post during Tuesday’s press conference.

Reporters fired at Gibbs from all angles, wondering how the reporter, who was contacted by the White House before the press conference, was picked, and how the White House hoped to avoid the perception that all the questions are either planted or staged.

Gibbs insisted that the questioner was picked because the administration had been following that reporter’s work and knew he would ask a question sent from Iran. Gibbs said he wouldn’t “make any apologies for that.”

“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,” Gibbs said.

He added that there was never a guarantee that the questioner would be picked and no advance knowledge by the White House as to what the question would be. But the White House typically decides in advance which reporters will be called on during a presidential press conference. It’s also common for the administration to give reporters a heads-up that they will be called on.

“I will be definitive: Nobody at any outlet has ever told me that they were going to ask a certain question,” Gibbs said at the briefing.

The tension arising from the Huffington Post questioner followed days of debate between congressional Republicans and ABC News, which held a full day of events from the White House Wednesday, including a taped town hall meeting featuring Obama on his healthcare reform proposals.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Media Fairness Caucus, fired off a letter to ABC News president David Westin, essentially accusing the network of running an infomercial that amounted to an in-kind campaign contribution to Obama.

Westin responded to Smith in a letter, saying it was unfortunate that the congressman “found it appropriate to criticize a program that has not yet aired.”

“Contrary to your assertions, this will not be ‘slanted’ in any way — much less a ‘day-long infomercial’ or ‘in-kind free advertising’ as you allege,” Westin wrote. “It will be a thoughtful, respectful, and probing discussion of some of the issues raised by the calls for health-care reform. We will include a variety of perspectives coming from private individuals asking the president questions and taking issue with him, as they see fit.”

Gibbs said reporters have been forced to write about the ABC story for fear of looking soft. He called it a non-issue.

“The Republicans are trying to get in the heads of all the reporters,” Gibbs said.

Republican claims that the media have a liberal bias are nothing new, and President George W. Bush’s White House was only too happy to fan that notion to the delight of its conservative base.

There is some evidence they have a case.

A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that during his first 100 days in office, Obama “enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage” than either Bush or President Clinton.

“Overall, roughly four out of ten stories, editorials and op-ed columns about Obama have been clearly positive in tone, compared with 22 percent for Bush and 27 percent for Clinton in the same mix of seven national media outlets during the same first two months in office,” the study said.

Similar research for the time following the first 100 days is not available, but there is a palpable growth in tension in the White House.

At Obama’s press conference Tuesday, the president was visibly irritated by a number of the questions, snapping at some reporters. And some media outlets this week have made a point of reporting how tardy Gibbs is to his daily press conference.

Gibbs dismissed the idea that the coverage has changed, for better or worse, but he conceded that because of “the sheer number of outlets” covering the White House, the competitiveness and technology have made everyone “a wire reporter.”

That, he said, has “increased the amount of that sort of conflict and tension.”

But Gibbs, leaning back and putting his feet on his desk, noted “it is what it is.”

Eliza Adelson contributed to this article.