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08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think Again: The Strange Politics of Collusion (and "Dickishness")

Crossposted with the Center for American Progress. With Danielle Ivory

For a conversation so self-evidently silly, last weekend's food-fight between The Washington Post's Dana Milbank and The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney on CNN's Reliable Source sure has excited quite a few people.

Maybe it's because according to Pitney, Milbank called him a "dick" after the cameras were turned off. We would not be surprised. But alleged dickishness notwithstanding, the argument was not nearly as trivial as it might initially appear. In fact, it revealed some important aspects of a battle underway to define the manner in which different members of the media define their jobs as the protectors and defenders of American democracy.

It is no secret that the elite, insider Washington media (herein "MSM") is under siege on a number of fronts -- political, moral, intellectual, and certainly financial. All of the challenges threaten the self-image -- and some would say self-importance -- of these journalists and the most common response has been one of defensiveness. They have a way of doing things around here, thank you very much, and if you don't like it, it's probably because you, in your ignorance, ideological obsessiveness, or simple cluelessness, just don't get it. Their response, believe it or not, is not always wrong -- particularly when compared to say, the quality of discourse on cable TV these days, and much of what can be found in the "comments" sections of most websites.

This defensiveness was in evidence all across the MSM when President Barack Obama, in an extremely unusual move during his most recent press conference, not only called on an upstart website for his second question, but signaled that the exchange had been coordinated in advance. Pitney, the National editor of The Huffington Post, had been liveblogging the uprising in Iran since the election. The White House told Pitney that the president might call on him with regard to his reporting on Iran. Pitney, who had solicited questions from Iranian readers, came up with a tough one regarding the president's willingness to toughen his stand against the regime. You can both read the question and Obama's response here.

Many members of the MSM evinced shock on multiple levels. They were offended on the one hand by Obama's turning to Huffington Post, particularly for the second question of the conference, and even more by the Huffington Post's willingness to cooperate with the White House in the staging of the event and agreeing to the topic in advance.

But The New York Times (whose White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, famously asked Obama what "enchanted him the most" about serving as president) complained that the Obama-Pitney exchange was staged. On Sunday Obama adviser David Gregory demanded of David Axelrod, "If President Bush had done that, don't you think Democrats would have said that's outrageous?" When it came time for Reliable Sources, Milbank, positively dripping with contempt for his fellow panelist, termed the Pitney-Obama exchange "collusion."

Of course Bush did this many times. For two years the Bush White House gave James Guckert, writing for Talon News under the pseudonym of "Jeff Gannon," access to the press room. Guckert, a former gay prostitute and delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000, with no journalistic background to speak of, had established Talon News in 2003, worried that his actual employer, GOPUSA, might give the appearance of a "built-in bias."

The president called on Guckert regularly and he would lob softball questions that highlighted White House talking points. The National Press Club invited Gannon to be an honored guest on a panel on blogging and journalistic credibility. Howard Kurtz, who draws a paycheck both from CNN and The Post, while reporting on both, blamed the scandal on "these liberal bloggers, [who] have started investigating his personal life in an effort to discredit him."

It continued -- slightly less egregiously but no less obviously -- after Guckert was revealed in the manner of the Bush relationship to Fox News. As the scrupulously fair-minded MSM reporter Ron Brownstein notes, "Through its language, its news decisions, and its hosts -- [Fox] generally functions more like a cog in the Republican message machine than as a conventional news organization that attempts to abide, however imperfectly, by the traditional standards of (yes) fairness and balance."

Dana Milbank did not, insofar as our research could discover, ever criticize any of these Bush events. In fact, he engaged in some rather significant ones on his own....

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory's analysis in their recent article, "Think Again: The Strange Politics of Collusion (and "Dickishness")"

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.