Being a White House reporter is one of the most intoxicating job assignments in journalism, a seat in the front row of history. So why do some privileged correspondents seem so desperate to be rebellious and abuse what should rightfully be seen as an honor?
During the Clinton era, the White House press corps was seemingly incapable of asking a question -- never mind reporting a story -- that might offend the First Family. In the late Clinton years, his in-house reporters wouldn't even let a rape charge ruin the groove of his press conferences, which were called for the obvious purpose of displaying his oh-so-stunning intellect. (Sam Donaldson was the glaring exception to this rule.) Viewers at home got this subtle message: You may subscribe to ancient Victorian moral ideals, but we do not. It is just not important. We will not participate in what are clearly political games.
Now, with George W. Bush halfway through his first year in office, the political games are in full swing -- and those reporters are the ones playing. The attack dogs in the James Brady Briefing Room have loaded their big guns in the rifle rack at home -- and they're off hunting. Everything Bush does gets strained through a filter almost entirely opposite to Clinton's. Where they once looked up in awe from their station at Clinton's feet, they're looking down their noses at Bush. Viewers at home now have a new message from the press: We've gone from the Arkansas Ubermensch to this transparent un-intellectual lightweight.
All these concepts came to mind when National Review's Web site posted a pool report from Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. When access is limited to a small pool of reporters, one of them files a just-the-facts-ma'am report on what the president did, with a side order of the atmospherics. With his training in churning out sassy dispatches at the liberal New Republic and in the Post's Style section, Milbank was incapable of delivering an assembly-line report that the president said this and that, and his tie was red.
"Our protagonist departed the White House near unto 9:20 this morning, bound for the Capitol in a determined effort to find Gary Condit. Actually, he was to meet with the House Republican caucus," Milbank began. What transpired wasn't a hot story, so Milbank mocked the news-free happy talk he encountered. "The president told the members he would 'focus on the American people,' and informed them about 'how optimistic he is' and reminded them that 'we're doing incredibly positive things for America.'" Milbank ridiculed the "big news" of the day out of the president: "(Bush) declared that education is 'a passion for me.' In addition to this startling revelation, he made a case for free trade and his faith-based initiative. 'I saw it work its magic,' he told the members of his faith plan ... On patients' rights, he said, controversially, that he favors a bill that 'honors patients.'" He wrapped up by joking, "Our hero worked a rope line" of tourists.
Saying "I'm for education" and "I'm for patients" is what Republican politicians are reduced to saying to prevent liberal reporters from burning them at the stake. They might like to say "education's being ruined by labor unions" or "what they call 'patients' rights' is tort reform in reverse." But they know what happens to conservative candor -- see: Gingrich, Newt.
Any reporter looking for a hot scoop could be excused for disappointment, even boredom, at chronicling a staged pep rally, a stale recitation of talking points. But with all his "our hero" mockery, Milbank crossed the line. This was not news reporting; it was political satire. It's driven partly by intellectual contempt, and part of it is ideological contempt. Milbank simply could not restrain himself from
reporting that this is a Texas airhead stage-managed by his hard-right hand puppeteers.
It is instructive to ponder how the Milbanks of the Washington press corps would react if the roles were reversed. What if Milbank was the White House mouthpiece and Ari Fleischer was sitting in his audience with a terminal case of smart mouth? Let Milbank consider the difficulty of keeping a united White House message with hundreds of reporters trying to find any possible way to crumble it.
It shouldn't be this way. Let the pundits opine, and the analysts analyze. But a reporter -- especially a pool reporter -- has but one job: report. Anything more is a violation of journalistic ethics.