The Huffington Post reported yesterday evening that Barack Obama met with a small group of well-known conservative journalists at the White House earlier in the day — off the record.  The move comes as Obama’s polling numbers have begun to plummet and he refuses to negotiate with Republicans in Congress over the budget and the debt limit. The meeting follows a similar meeting with progressive journalists that conservatives widely criticized:

President Obama met Tuesday afternoon with a small group of conservative reporters, columnists and commentators for an off-the-record discussion.

The group, according to a source familiar with the meeting, included Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, National Review Washington editor Robert Costa, Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, syndicated columnists Kathleen Parker and Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer.

Obama and the journalists talked for about 90 minutes in the Roosevelt room.

Costa tweeted after that it was an honor to meet Obama, but did not elaborate on the discussion. Given the off the record ground rules, it’s unlikely attendees will discuss exactly what was said inside.

When Obama did this with progressive writers, conservatives ripped the attendees, brought up the Journolist scandal, and noted their administration-friendly stories over the next couple of days. Does that issue matter when the writers are ideologically opposed to the administration?  Erik Wemple — who criticized the earlier progressive confab — says it doesn’t, and that reporters shouldn’t allow themselves to get spun regardless of their political perspective:

The Erik Wemple Blog previously addressed the pitfalls of off-the-record sessions with the president of the United States: If he says something newsworthy, there’s a good chance it’ll leak, via whispers or someone who seeks authorization to put a tidbit or two on the record. And if he doesn’t say anything newsworthy, well, why go in the first place?

Given the degree of skepticism that greeted news of progressive journalists meeting under these quiet terms with President Obama, York clearly felt compelled to explain his presence at the session, so he tweeted away …

Credit York for the long-form Twitter transparency. The trouble with his explanation, though, is its reliance on and adherence to every cowardly public official’s rationale for speaking to groups of people off the record — namely, that it enables them to express their views in a “more open way.” Or, in another common refrain, to have a more “frank” discussion.

That’s always garbage. The president calls these off-the-record sessions so he can plant his agenda in the heads of willing reporters — whether they be conservative, liberal or centrist — without any fingerprints. That’s it. There’s no more to it.

As one commenter in our Headlines thread points out, it didn’t seem to work with Krauthammer, anyway:

“He is really afraid of that debt ceiling. He says he won’t bend on this—of course he’ll have to at the eleventh hour,” Krauthammer said. “He can’t afford to be remembered as the first president who defaulted or allowed, you know, the conditions in which it can happen.”

I’m a bit torn on this. Wemple has an excellent argument, which is bolstered by the fact that this particular President rarely offers himself to tough questions from the press corps.  He did so yesterday, but the professionals at the White House decided to toss softballs for an hour instead, Mark Knoller excepted. Frankly, I find that performance a lot more objectionable than having some reporters take an off-the-record meeting with the President at his request, which reporters of all stripes have been doing with Presidents of all stripes for a very long time before now.  They are under no obligation to push Obama’s spin, after all, whether they report it as such or not. 

There should also be some consideration given to respecting the office as well; if the President politely invites you to the White House to ask for your advice and/or consultation, it seems churlish to a fault to reject the invitation.  All of the reporters disclosed the meeting, as they should, so no one who reads them will be misled on their actions. The wonder in this case shouldn’t really be that the invitations were accepted, it’s that they were made in the first place.

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