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Making Sense of the Pitney-Milbank Spat

jeffrey-feldman The recent kerfuffle between Nico Pitney (Huffington Post) and Dana Milbank (Washington Post) over a clumsy exchange in a White House press conference brings to mind two media mavens rarely mentioned in the same sentence: Marshall McLuhan and Thomas Jefferson. Seen in the context of their ideas about media and government, a tiff between a blogger and a journalist raises ethical issues about the role of the press in our democracy and about the need for ethical leadership in an environment where government, blogs, and traditional journalism are increasingly interlaced.

McLuhan: The Medium was the Message in Iran

Amidst all the journalistic gatekeeping and blogger ballyhoo over whether or not the White House seeded a question, the coverage has largely neglected to ask why we got here in the first place: because the medium was message.

What medium and what message?  The social media that gave shape to the Iran election crisis set the stage for what happened in the June 23, 2009 White House Press Conference.

If the Iran election crisis had not been so thoroughly intertwined with new social media, the White House would not have reached out (seeded, elicited, whatever) and then asked Pitney a question, Milbank would not have criticized Pitney, and nobody would have created the Twitter hash tag “#dickwhisperer.” The “medium” of the Iran election crisis really was “the message,” and that was not merely one reason the White House sought out Pitney — it was was a huge reason.

In the days prior to the his press conference, as the President watched the Iran crisis unfold, someone if not everyone in the White House must have realized that all traditional broadcast media would soon be cut off by Ahmadinejad.  The only way to get an unfiltered message from to the Mousavi supporters would be to somehow leap into the white-water rapids of the Twitter coverage — to take Obama’s enormous political cache as a global figure and use it to create a ‘push’ in the social media, a wave of momentum and hope amidst the ebb and flow of Tweeting moving in and out of the protests.  And so, the idea must have been hatched to get a message out to the Iranian people by taking aggressive steps to insert the President directly into the medium of the protests via an unorthodox press room maneuver.

It was a brilliant move by the Obama White House for several reasons.

Even if Obama did not want to formally back Mousavi, by asking Pitney for a question from the Iranian people that he collected via Twitter and the blogs, Obama implicitly endorsed the medium and message of the Mousavi protests.  By bringing the key Iran coverage aggregator (Pitney) onto the White House stage, Obama gave voice to the very movement Ahmadinejad sought to silence. It was brilliant political theater and while it did not lead to a turnabout in Iran, it stuck a knife in Ahmadinejad’s side and let the world know that the White House was not a dinosaur that shuts down the presses when people are communicating via cell phone.  This was a U.S. President who “gets” the medium driving change on a global scale.  This was a U.S. President who reads what bloggers put out there.  Ahmadinejad, by contrast, came across as a petulant Grand Inquisitor: brutal in his ways and brutally out of touch with contemporary ways of doing politics.  From the grave, McLuhan applauded the White House.

Jefferson: A Free Press Must Be Independent

Having been asked to dance with the President so the White House could walk a delicate line between diplomacy and political manipulation, the Huffington Post — fairly or unfairly–was tripped up by the tangled ethical web that now constitutes the relationship between the press and government.

To understand these ethics — what is right or wrong in this situation — we are compelled to return to Jefferson’s compelling principle that a free press is one of the crucial pillars of our Democracy.

Here, we have to say that the bone of Milbank’s contention was sharp, but misguided.  The ethical question was not whether Pitney allowed the White House to seed a question, but under what circumstances does the ongoing interaction between the press and the executive branch of government diminish our ability maintain the principles of a Jeffersonian free society?

As Pitney’s defenders have pointed out, the previous administration cultivated a kind of interaction with the press that significantly undercut Jefferson’s principles.  In particular, when the time came for the American public to inform themselves about whether or not an invasion of Iraq was warranted, the White House had so co-opted the national press corp that the media coverage was unable to provide citizens with the basic information they needed to make informed decisions.

In response to that breakdown, the blogsphere emerged as a counterbalance to what was widely seen as a national media that had lost its way during the Bush administration — for good and for bad.  Rising out of the ashes of a free press was a new citizen-driven, open source media that, while only occasionally capable of generating the initial fact line of a story, was extremely nimble at ferreting out political manipulation and forcing counterpoints into the headlines.

Largely free from the institutional constraints and salaries of formal journalism, bloggers became a much needed check and balance to help re-establish a free press that could, in the Jeffersonian sense, help citizens inform themselves and make decisions.

Multiple mid-term elections and an historic presidential campaign later, bloggers are a lot more institutionalized than they once were.

The Huffington Post in particular, with readership numbers that can compete against most major media outlets, now occupies a gray zone between institutional journalism and new media. And like it or not, Huffington Post is now faced with the very same ethical questions concerning interaction with the White House that tripped up traditional journalism just a few short years ago.

Conclusion: Stepping Up to Civic Leadership

As all but a few producers at CNN have figured out by now, the solution to the spat caused by the White House pushing a blogger to the front of the press room is not to stage on-air shouting matches between supposedly “old” and “new” media. Keeping in mind that the truth is sometimes factual and sometimes philosophical, there is truth to both sides of the debate between Pitney and Milbank.

The solution is for everyone to stop hiding behind the pretense of gate keeping, on the one hand, and naivete on the other.

If formally trained reporters would stop drawing a chalk circle around the word “journalist” just so they could push bloggers outside of it, then they could finally realize that a healthy civic sphere in the year 2009 requires a few evolutionary steps forward in the idea of the quaint Jeffersonian conception of the “press.”  In an era where politicians have become nimble at manipulating the press, we need voices in the media who concern themselves with preventing the damage politics can cause to the civics. That does not mean journalism dies. It simply must grow.

Likewise, bloggers who already have a foothold in the grand-daddy of all plum assignments — the White House Press corp — and who have far-reaching and varied access to government and broadcast media at all levels, need to stop pretending that just found a way in the back door. If the Iran election protests teach us anything it is that bloggers are firmly at the core of politics and media on a global scale and now is the time for bloggers to show leadership on big civic questions.

Of course, so long as shouting matches make good ratings, both journalists and bloggers may have a hard time stepping up.  But the time is now and the talent is there to drive the public sphere forward.

Jeffrey Feldman is the author of Framing the Debate (Ig Publishing, 2007), Outright Barbarous (Ig Publishing, 2008), and founder of Frameshop, the influential blog on politics and language. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, which he applies to the analysis of speeches, media, and campaigns. An influential voice both on and in the media, Dr. Feldman is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, has appeared on PBS, MSNBC, and Air America, and can be seen frequently on CBC Newsworld.

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