Q & A: when politicians pose for pictures and journalists pose questions

The Prime Minister’s Office seems to have backed off on a threat to block a CTV cameraman from traveling with Stephen Harper on a foreign trip, after the cameraman tried to ask Harper an unwelcome question at a photo-op in New York last week.

It’s not uncommon for journalists to shout questions at politicians during staged events, where no formal opportunity is offered for reporters to ask them. Last spring, for instance, after Harper gave that widely panned speech to his MPs about the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, some reporters tried to pose questions from the back of the caucus room. He didn’t answer, and the unruly press was soon ushered out.

In Washington, interrogative outbursts of this sort seem even more common. I asked Steven Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents Association, and McClatchy Newspapers’ government and politics editor, to explain. Here’s an edited version of that brief phone interview:

Q. How often does the President have questions shouted at him when he’s not necessarily expecting them?

A. It has happened often. At statements where the President is speaking and is not going to take questions. At photo-ops. It doesn’t happen frequently at this White House, but it has happened more frequently in the last year than it did in the first four years of [President Barack Obama’s] term.

Q. Why is it happening more lately?

A. Because the President doesn’t take questions, or doesn’t formally agree to take questions, as often as we in the press corps would like. So we get frustrated and start shouting out questions.

Q. Has the White House tried to reprimand or deny accreditation to somebody who shouted out a question?

A. No. I do not recall that ever happening. There have been requests made to us, the correspondents association, to reprimand reporters who have been, I would call it aggressive, some people would call it impolite.

Q. What did the association do?

A. There was a case about a year ago where a reporter interrupted the President in the Rose Garden while the President was still speaking, and the President was frustrated and angry. People asked us to reprimand the reporter in some way and we refused. We debated it for about two minutes. We don’t police the journalism of our members.

Q. So this sort of thing is generally accepted in Washington.

A. There’s frustration, maybe even anger, on the part of politicians, the White House, the government. But there’s been no effort to take away the credentials of reporters for shouting out questions.

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