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In Defense Of Dana Milbank

As I've written before, I disagree with Dana Milbank's criticism of Nico Pitney and the process by which he got to ask a question at last week's White House presser. That said, the attacks on Dana* from other Pitney defenders (and Pitney himself in this CNN clip) are getting kind of ridiculous. In their telling, Dana is pretty much unworthy of the title of journalist.

A. Serwer, for instance, writes:

What strikes me though, is that Milbank is actually probably the least likely champion of traditional print journalism. His columns are all tone and humor, they offer very little original or significant information. Milbank is not document diving or sneaking into veterans hospitals to find mold on the walls and cockroaches taking over the building--not that he necessarily has to be, we can't all be Dana Priest. But by nature, Milbank's columns are meant more to be entertaining than informative, they draw on reporting from his colleagues at the Washington Post, and they're 90% snark. The only thing that really separates Milbank from the stereotypical blogger is that he writes for the Washington Post and he wears a suit. I think that's actually what bothers him the most about Pitney in particular and bloggers in general. I'm not of the opinion that bloggers make old school shoe-leather reporters obsolete. Not by a long shot. But someone like Milbank? He's a rotary phone. And I think he knows it. 

I think it's worth remembering, though, that before Dana wrote his "Washington Sketch" column, he was a White House correspondent for the Post, and he was one of the best in the business--he broke news, he informed, and he afflicted the comfortable. Indeed, he was a constant thorn in the Bush administration's side, not because of any partisan allegiances, but because of his allegiance to the truth--which, ironically, made him a hero not so long ago to some of the people now attacking him.

In a 2004 piece for the New Yorker about the Bush White House's press operation, Ken Auletta wrote:

After September 11th, the briefings became less contentious, the press coverage of Bush and his leadership more adulatory. Another phase began around the fall of 2002, and was marked by somewhat more aggressive coverage of the Administration's march to war with Iraq. The White House was enraged by an article by Dana Milbank, which appeared on October 22, 2002, under the headline "for bush, facts are malleable." It began:

President Bush, speaking to the nation this month about the need to challenge Saddam Hussein, warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used "for missions targeting the United States." Last month, asked if there were new and conclusive evidence of Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the Iraqis were "six months away from developing a weapon." And last week, the president said objections by a labor union to having customs officials wear radiation detectors has the potential to delay the policy "for a long period of time." All three assertions were powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought. And all three statements were dubious, if not wrong.

Milbank, who is thirty-five and short, balding, and low-key, is not popular at the Bush White House. According to Maralee Schwartz, the Post's national political editor, Fleischer, Hughes, and Rove each complained to her about him, and suggested that he might be the wrong person for the job. The White House now says that it does not "believe that anybody has ever asked for his removal."

The White House, Milbank says, tried to freeze him out, and for a time stopped returning his calls. Some of Milbank's colleagues thought he was "too snarky," and Schwartz concedes that when he started on the White House beat "there was a lot of attitude in his copy" but that this "got detoxed in the editing process and Dana has come to understand his role better." Even those White House reporters who sometimes think him snarky admire his independence. And Leonard Downie, the Post's executive editor, says, "I think very highly of Dana's coverage. He breaks news; he explains to readers how and why Bush and the White House do things the way they do; he provides the political context for policy decisions and actions."

Like I said, I think Dana's criticism of Pitney is misguided, but my guess is that it's motivated less by any status anxiety on Dana's part than by his belief--shaped, no doubt, by his experience covering the Bush White House--that reporters should be totally independent from the administration they cover. People can obviously disagree with Dana about that--in Pitney's case, the compromise was trivial and Pitney wound up asking a good and tough question--but they shouldn't disparage his motives in the process, and they shouldn't argue that he's not a good journalist. He is.

*-- Full disclosure: I once fetched Dana coffee when he worked at TNR; I think the last time I talked to him was probably 5 years ago.

--Jason Zengerle