Paint That Pig: The Nico Pitney-Dana Milbank Smackdown

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If you want to know what’s wrong with the current state of America’s political discourse, take some time to watch this Sunday’s CNN’s Reliable Sources, where two American journalists acted like petulant politicians, abandoning any pretense to reasonable discussion so they could launch specious attacks on each other’s integrity. No doubt supporters of both the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney will now declare some sort of moral victory, congratulating themselves on their adherence to truth-telling in the face of phoniness. But all their heroes did was ignore an interesting debate to score cheap television points.

[Read the full post after the jump.]

First, the back story: Historically, the President of the United States has the ability to shape the course of events at most press conferences, because he can choose the reporters that get to ask a question. Of course, the president is supposed to follow a script of sorts–he calls on the Associated Press first, followed by Reuters, the major television networks, the national newspapers, and then members of the periodical press, including national magazines. But he doesn’t have to follow the script. And from the beginning, Barack Obama has shown an interest in making a point in the reporters he selects. He has been notably generous in calling on members of the minority press, representatives of black and Hispanic media, and in his first press conference, he called on Sam Stein, a reporter for the liberal, online upstart Huffington Post, to whom the White House staff had given a coveted front row seat.

Very often, Obama’s staff will tip off reporters when they might be expected to get a question. This is especially true in diplomatic settings, when American reporters are only given one or two questions. But under no circumstances is the White House allowed to tell the chosen reporter what question to ask, or ask to know the content of a reporter’s question. That said, it’s not that hard for the president’s staff to game the system. If you want to get a question about the U.S. relationship with Chile, as the president did last Tuesday in his press conference, then you just have to call on the Chilean reporter in the room. If you want to talk about issues important to Hispanics, call on the reporter for the Hispanic press. You can’t be guaranteed a question on topic, but the odds are good. And whatever the question actually is, you can say whatever you wanted to say.

So what’s all the fuss about? Last week, Obama’s staff told Pitney before the press conference that they would like him to ask a question at the press conference from an Iranian citizen. Pitney, who has been aggregating information from Iran for weeks, had previously been soliciting questions from Iranians, a process he stepped up after the White House request. The next day, just a few moments before the press conference began, a member of Obama’s press staff walked Pitney into the White House briefing room, and placed him in the crowd, where he would be easily seen by the television cameras. (Meanwhile, Stein, the Huffington Post’s regular White House reporter, was left to fend for himself in the human sardine can that the briefing room had become.) At the start of the press conference, Obama called on the AP, as required by tradition, and then turned to Pitney, after announcing that the Huffington Post had been collecting questions from Iranians. Pitney proceeded to ask a tough question from an anonymous online respondent–Under what conditions would you accept an Ahmadinejad victory as legitimate?–which the president proceeded to avoid answering with any specifics.

This incident raised all sorts of interesting questions. Should the president be able to place non-White House press reporters in the crowd during his press conferences? Should the wires, newspapers and television networks lose their spots as the first questions of the conference? Should the president be able to invite niche publications with niche topics into the press conference to shape its course, even if the president does not know the exact content of the question? If that is allowed, how much further can the president go in shaping the content of the press conference?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Clearly, Pitney was a special case, a stand in for the Iranian people, who have no representatives in the White House press pool. And he asked a good question, as pointed as any that was devised by the mainstream networks and publications. And clearly, the media itself is changing. Niche publications are simply becoming a greater force in our media landscape, addressing the concerns of select audiences, and usurping the power of the previous giants of general interest media, which historically has tried to cater to the broad swath of the American public.

Alas, these complex and interesting questions were soon–sadly–lost to just another political spitting match. The Washington Post’s Milbank, who has excelled for years at chronicling the narrative absurdity of federal politics, wrote a column calling the question “arranged” and “planted,” while noting the surprise among some in the press corps at the “stagecraft.” Arianna Huffington, Pitney’s boss, shot back with an even snarkier rejoinder, with reference to the “media sandbox,” and a column that suggested the established press was a defensive group of third grade boys whining about the new kid. All this made great web copy, but none of it actually addressed the issues at hand.

And then came Sunday. Howard Kurtz invited both Pitney and Milbank onto his CNN show, ostensibly to talk about the issues at play. But both came prepared for battle. Pitney started off, accusing Milbank of all sorts of unrelated–and out of context–offenses, like once “hailing” President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner and once asking Obama about his appearance in a bathing suit, which Pitney termed “pathetic.” These are the sorts of attacks that make politicians look small and journalists look puny, since they are based on misleading isolated opposition research that has little to do with reality. As anyone who has followed the Post knows, Milbank has a long history of fiercely critical coverage of the Bush Administration, and covers the news as a columnist, who often unapologetically revels in the superficiality of politics.

Milbank, in turn, responded by declaring vaguely that Pitney was peddling “fiction” while trying to sabotage his foe with a bunch of paper, including a selection of his own columns and a copy of an email that Pitney had written. The pass-the-paper trick didn’t look very good when Rick Lazio tried it on Hillary Clinton in 2000, and Milbank did not come off much better. Meanwhile, on the interwebbing, the ideological jabberers took their positions, casting the debate in whatever light their readers might most enjoy. Liberal bloggers even created a tag on Twitter to commemorate the event, with wording (#dickwhisperer) that generally matched the seriousness of the discussion. Conservative bloggers pointed to Pitney as further evidence that Obama controls the media. Liberal media watchers played the Bush-was-worse game by pointing out past examples of manipulation of press conference questions.

Watch it all here: [youtube=]

The whole painted-pig kabuki, which is how we now do business, quickly became the sort of sideshow that makes most voters not want to vote before Election Day, a tribal contest of egos and bragging rights. And lost in all of it was any reasoned discussion of the interesting issues at play. For me, the most interesting unanswered question is this: As the media becomes more fragmented, and reporters increasingly represent niche audiences, how can (or should) the White House press corps contain the President’s ability to tailor the subject matter and tenor of his press conferences with the people he calls on? This is not a partisan issue, nor does it condemn reporters like Pitney who use their opportunities to ask tough questions. Simply put, Obama is not the first president to play this game, and he won’t be the last.