ABC, GOP spar over Obama coverage

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President Obama took his health care argument directly to television viewers Wednesday - or at least to one network’s viewers.

In a controversial deal with ABC News, Mr. Obama granted the network exclusive access in exchange for receiving extensive coverage, including a prime-time slot for a White House town hall meeting on health care.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said it was “an engaging way, in direct questioning, to set aside myths from fact” on health care. But critics, including congressional Republicans and the Republican National Committee, have said the event amounts to an infomercial for the president and that ABC was being unprofessional.

In a response to Republicans in Congress, posted on ABC’s Web site, ABC News President David Westin said the program would not be slanted, but would be “a serious effort to go beyond mere punditry.”

The town hall meeting came a day after Mr. Obama held a news conference to boost his faltering domestic agenda of combating global warming and overhauling health care, and to answer critics who said he hadn’t been tough enough in responding to postelection violence in Iran.

But critics also blasted the press corps for what they said were weak questions.

“I think maybe we should drop the term ‘press conference’ and adopt the term ‘Obama rallies within the White House,’ ” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times.

“These are ‘internal rallies’ in which a few of his close friends get to come,” he said. “Can you imagine if George W. Bush or if Ronald Reagan had done this?”

As the second question of his 55-minute news conference, Mr. Obama called on Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney, saying, “Nico, I know that you, and all across the Internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran,” Mr. Obama said. “Do you have a question?”

Minutes earlier, a press aide had escorted Mr. Pitney into the crowded briefing room and cleared a spot for him to stand near the podium, within easy view of the president. When Mr. Obama called on him, Mr. Pitney obliged with a question he said an Iranian submitted through the Internet.

On Wednesday, Mr. Gibbs was on the defensive over the maneuver.

“Nobody at any outlet has ever told me that they were going to ask a certain question, including the fact that I was going to pick or the president might pick somebody from the Huffington Post to ask a question by an Iranian, but didn’t know what the question was,” he said.

Outside observers such as Mr. Gingrich said the press fell short in not objecting to the planted questioner.

“Nobody in the White House press corps jumped up and said, ‘What is going on here?’ ”

The news conference, which the Associated Press said was the eighth of Mr. Obama’s young presidency, was the testiest so far. The president chided a reporter for asking about his tobacco addiction and told another reporter he’d given his answer on Iran and wasn’t going to be drawn into a discussion about consequences if that nation’s crackdown on protests over the outcome of recent elections continues.

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