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The New York Times

New Media Breaks in, but Tradition Lives On

Jeff Zeleny

Hearst White House columnist Helen Thomas poses a question to U.S. President Barack Obama during his first news conference as president in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 9, 2009. (Reuters/Jim Bourg/United States)

WASHINGTON - It was a bookend moment.

President Obama on Monday evening became the 10th American president to call on Helen Thomas at a White House news conference. And he was the first to call on Sam Stein, a reporter for The Huffington Post, whose Internet publication sprung to life during Mr. Obama's candidacy.

For years, Ms. Thomas has held the honorific title as dean of the White House press corps. At 88, she has been questioning presidents since John F. Kennedy.

"All right, Helen, this is my inaugural moment here," Mr. Obama said with a grin as he turned toward Ms. Thomas's seat in the front row of the East Room. "I'm really excited."

Ms. Thomas, now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, did not return the pleasantry. She plunged directly into her question, wondering if Pakistan was maintaining safe havens in Afghanistan for "these so-called terrorists." She added, did any country in the Middle East have nuclear weapons?

Mr. Obama glided through the questions without making any obvious news. Then, he turned to Mr. Stein, 26, who last month became the White House correspondent for his publication.

"Are you willing to rule out - right here and now - any prosecution of Bush administration officials?" Mr. Stein said, asking whether Mr. Obama intended to endorse an investigation by a so-called Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

As he did with Ms. Thomas, Mr. Obama essentially bypassed the question, saying, "My general orientation is to say let's get it right moving forward."

It was not the answer but the very fact that he took a question from Mr. Stein that created a buzz and signaled yet another shift in the ever-evolving news media landscape.

The White House decided in advance which reporters would be selected. And on Monday night, correspondents for The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Time and Newsweek were not on the list.

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