The Left Wing: Presidential Favoritism at Obama's First Primetime Presser?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," February 10, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Did you see the new faces at last night's primetime press conference? If you guessed GretaWire, wrong answer. The right answer, the Huffington post, the first time ever a reporter from the liberal Web site was called upon by the president to ask a question. Radio host Ed Schultz also got a seat in the coveted front row. Schultz adamantly defended then-Senator Obama during the campaign, calling Senator McCain a warmonger. Schultz sat next to Helen Thomas, who returned to the front row last night. Thomas went from being a correspondent to a columnist during President Bush's administration and was moved from her seat in the front row. Thomas, who was also an outspoken critic of President Bush, has covered every president since JFK.

Last night, she was one of 13 people to ask a question.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Helen, this is my inaugural moment here.


OBAMA: I'm really excited.

HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and -- are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

OBAMA: Well, I think that Pakistan -- there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, there are safe havens where terrorists are operating.


VAN SUSTEREN: So were the president's friends being rewarded last night? Let's ask someone who was there. Joining us live is Adriel Bettelheim, White House correspondent for CQPolitics. Nice to see you.


VAN SUSTEREN: So Huffington Post. Was that unusual?

BETTELHEIM: I think, in a way, it was, but at the same time, you have to remember that Obama's team very successfully used the Web during the campaign and used social networking sites to organize their fund-raising and their get-out-the-vote efforts, and they launched blogs off their own campaign Web site. So it's not surprising that they make a bow to the medium once they're in office, and naturally, Huffington Post was pretty good to them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, how do you get a seat at this press conference?

BETTELHEIM: Well, many of us who regularly cover the White House have our names in the database and have the security clearance. To get -- for these really big primetime shows, you get an assigned seat, and the press office sort of decides whether you're in the front or in the back or somewhere in between.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are the seats that we see -- every day, we see the press conference in the press room. Are the same people in the press -- at those press conferences with Gibbs, are they the ones who are invited traditionally to the primetime, or are there fewer at night for the primetime?

BETTELHEIM: There -- it was a few more, actually, especially foreign press, at the primetime. But there's sort of a pecking order in the White House. The networks, including yours, and the wire services are typically close to the front, and some of the national papers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you know what struck me is Ed Schultz was there, a radio talk show, and he was in the front row, prime -- I mean, (INAUDIBLE) a seat up front, very close. He -- during the campaign, he referred to Senator McCain as a warmonger and he even went after Senator -- then Senator Clinton, now Secretary of State Clinton's husband, President Clinton, saying Bill Clinton is lying about Barack Obama's record, he lied 10 years ago about Monica Lewinsky and he's being lying about a very viable candidate and somebody who would really be changed for this country. So I mean, it's really -- I mean, he was a real strong advocate for the president. But he's a radio talk show host. Have you ever seen anything like that at a press conference?

BETTELHEIM: Well, when President Bush was in, we saw some radio talk show hosts in the room, but not necessarily in such a prominent place. And I understand when asked about it later on, he said, I earned the seat. He didn't get to ask a question, of course. But his comments -- it's interesting because Obama's campaign had to distance themselves a little bit after the "warmonger" comment. So he's a controversial figure, but it's a new -- you know, Obama promised change, and there's a new cast of characters, and this is a bit of a Beltway parlor game to see who's up and who's down with this administration.

VAN SUSTEREN: I noticed he dodged two questions that might play to his base. One was about whether or not he's going to reinstitute flag -- that the American people could see the coffins come home with flags. That was the first thing. And the second thing about whether or not Senator Leahy should institute a commission to begin investigating the Bush administration, something that might play to his far left, but President Obama dodged both those.

BETTELHEIM: That's right. That second question came from the Huffingtonpost guy, by the way.


BETTELHEIM: Yes. No, I think, basically, you know, on the second question, I think he wants to project himself with this financial crisis as a forward-looking guy with a -- and not, you know, looking too far back. But he has to make a bow, obviously, to his liberal base. And on the defense matters, like so many other things, he's sort of deferring to a Defense Department review about the photos.

VAN SUSTEREN: Adriel, thank you.


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