Nico Pitney won the clash with Dana Milbank today on “Reliable Sources,” but not on the merits – through classic tactics of going on the offensive, changing the subject, and comparing apples to oranges. I’m really surprised that Milbank wasn’t ready for it. But though they both scored a few points, I actually feel like this has served to obscure the issue more than clarify it.
Right now it’s set up as “Hard-working blogger” vs. “Lazy MSM crank who didn’t hold the Bush administration accountable, so who is he to open his mouth?” But neither of those things are relevant. No one is disputing that Nico’s work on the Iran liveblog has been of real importance and value (I recommended it on Twitter shortly after the uprising began). And the distinction between blogger and “real” journalist has been boring for a while now – things are changing, HuffPo is a huge news site, and anyhow the “blogger at the briefing” barrier was broken ages ago by Garrett Graff in freaking March 2005. (Also, to the best of my knowledge, neither have appeared in any gay porn. Point, bloggers!) As for Milbank, it’s also disingenuous to try to set him up as a dilettante and lightweight – the dude’s been covering Congress and/or the White House for coming on two decades. You don’t have to like him or his work, but this thing isn’t about the reputation, work ethic or likability of either.
For me, this is a narrow, narrow issue, turning on two points: (1) Pre-planning the question with the White House, and (2) The lack of transparency in how it was delivered. That’s it. The question itself was great, Nico had every right to ask it, etc. etc. But if you’re going to be a member of the press corps, the invitation to participate cannot be contingent on accepting White House conditions. Those must be applied to each member of the press corps equally. Otherwise, what White House wouldn’t be tempted to game the system? (And I seem to recall a White House that did…). This is a slippery slope argument, true, but the point is: if access is predicated on playing ball, then the system is broken. The fourth estate needs to be in a position to challenge the government, in full.
That said, there are exceptions – and this could have been one of them, had it been so delineated. A specific request to ask a question on behalf of an Iranian was a good and appropriate idea, and certainly Nico was an appropriate person to ask. But then make that exception clear. Instead, the moment was set up as if it was just part of the larger question period – which it was not. That’s a lack of transparency, pure and simple. This doesn’t devalue the question Nico asked or his worthiness to have asked it; what it does is devalue the process by which it is asked. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s gotta matter.
Those are my issues. They are non-partisan, as they should be; the same process should apply to both sides of the aisle (left and right – and MSM and blogger). It’s about process and transparency. The rest is noise.
So let’s get to that noise, shall we? Here’s what I took issue with in the so-called “debate”:
1. It’s totally disingenuous for Nico to try to diss Milbank for asking Obama about shirtless photos. Why? Because that’s HuffPo’s bread and butter: See this post about the Hawaii topless shots, that were splashed across the top of the site with this huge, bolded headline: “O!” (see it here). They have a “Barack Obama Shirtless” tag. You can’t have it both ways.
2. “Collusion” is a little strong here. It’s not like there was an attempt to put one over anyone. But it seems pretty obvious that Nico was invited to ask a question conditional on what type of question he asked. That he had the freedom to choose the question, that Obama didn’t really answer it – that’s beside the point.
3. Howie asking if the “establishment” was jealous that Nico got a question – that’s a red herring. The “HuffPo got a question!” hoopla happened already in February. The hoopla over this event seems fairly focused on the pre-planning of the question type and the “nothing to see here, folks!” set up. Dana Milbank gets plenty of attention; nothing in his column derided Nico for being an unworthy blogger minion. Absent that, it’s hard to brush this off as a pouty fit of jealousy – besides, there’s actual substance here.
4. The “Mission Accomplished” Moment – this, too, is a red herring. Why on earth is it relevant now? Nico cited Greg Sargent on this, who wrote about how the NYT and WaPo (Milbank) reacted to the Mission Accomplished moment (here and here, respectively). His point was to claim a double-standard, which I don’t think he achieved, but who cares – it’s irrelevant. Stagecraft for the benefit of the press is one thing. Stagecraft with the participation of the press is another.
5. One more thing on Sargent, whom I have followed from NYMag to TAP to TPM to WaPo, but with whom I have never disagreed with more vigorously:
The real question should be this: Was the reason for the White House’s managed question a defensible one? Yes, it helped Obama by making him look supportive of Iranian protesters. But it also allowed an ordinary Iranian to ask a tough question of the leader of the free world. Whatever “status” was granted Nico Pitney was also accorded the Iranian questioner. Can anyone seriously argue that this goal didn’t justify this relatively minor breach of Beltway press protocol?
So, obfuscation and misrepresentation are okay as long as there’s a good reason? Who gets to decide that reason? Rahm Emanuel? Karl Rove? See above re: slippery freaking slope. The irony is, transparency would have brought that reason to the fore: Obama WAS being supportive of Iranian protesters. He could easily have been transparent about how, as Nico could have been in his answer. If the WH was asking HuffPo essentially to do research for them – find me a good question from an Iranian, please – it should have been presented as such. This isn’t about exalted status – actually, HuffPo was treated like a lesser member of the press corps because it was invited to the party on different, more restrictive terms than other news organizations. Everything about this was a great idea except treating it like a regular question coming from a member of the press. Those are supposed to be determined by the press, in order to independently hold the administration to account. “Ends justifies the means” talk sounds a whole lot like, well, the Bush administration.
This is already way too much thinking about this issue, but I do think it’s important – just as I think the question itself was important. Which means this: Substance matters, but process matters too. That’s what frames the substance, protects it and gives it credibility. For anyone who cares about journalism – MSM, blogger, or the citizens the Fourth Estate is meant to represent – that’s got to matter, too.
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