08/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Context, Schmontext at WaPo

Columnist Dana Milbank's snide, defensive defense of the blanks he fired at Barack Obama on Wednesday shows either:

A) How far journalism has strayed.


B) How different D.C. journalism is from the prudent, reality-based journalism my hinterland colleagues and I practiced during the nine years I spent as a member of what I, as a blogger, now must -- under international law -- sneeringly refer to as the Mainstream Media.

I'm leaning toward that second explanation.

Here's Milbank's damning Obama quote: "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions."

This quote is part of the proof for Milbank's claim that the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee has become a presumptuous nominee. Get it? The words "presumptuous" and "presumptive" have the same first eight letters. Therefore, it's wordplay. Therefore, Dana Milbank is really, really, really clever. See? See?!

So, Dana, where does that Obama quote come from?

Firsthand reporting? No.

A surreptitious recording of Obama's meeting with House Democrats? No.

Multiple sources inside that meeting independently corroborating one another's accounts that Obama spoke those words and said them in a self-aggrandizing way? No.

A single unnamed source of uncertain stenographic prowess who attended the meeting and e-mailed Milbank's newspaper a fifteen-word snippet from what Obama supposedly said? Why, yes!

As Milbank, without any apparent irony or journalistic shame, later noted in the online chat with aggrieved Washington Post readers, "Evidently no recording was made, so we'll probably never know the exact wording."

(I can't stop myself from imagining Milbank defending the "JFK To Americans: Drop Dead!" headline that WaPo would have run if this same context-challenged tipster had attended Kennedy's inauguration and e-mailed in a report that the newly sworn-in president had said, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you.")

In the newsrooms where I worked, Milbank's "we'll probably never know the exact wording" would never have been seen as an excuse for publishing a shaky quote. It would have been seen for what it is: a clearcut sign that the tipster's tip -- in the unlikely event it would be published at all -- should not be published as if it were an actual verbatim quote.

Whatever their flaws, newspapers know how to do this right. They have it deep in their DNA to demand more of themselves than the Post did in this case. Newspapers can't permit themselves to run according to the half-assed proof standards of a junior-high-school rumor mill or a supermarket tabloid.

What can we do?

Agitate. Agitate consistently. Agitate with principle.

If you want McCain to win, make a point of joining Obama supporters in debunking sloppy reporting that might hurt Obama. If you're an Obama voter, do the same when McCain's getting slammed unfairly. Sloppy, sensationalistic journalism eventually makes all of us dumber. It eventually hurts all the candidates. Demand better.

In that spirit, in my capacity as a critic of the Iraq War, here's a link to a mea culpa from the reporter responsible for the recent delicious news that an adviser to Condi Rice had referred to the decision to invade Iraq as "fucking stupid."

See, we don't need to pounce on everything. We can be a little nice.

Nicer, say, than the person from Indianapolis who unleashed this during Milbank's online chat: "You've exposed yourself to be the lonely, overweight, repressed, ugly kid in the schoolyard that is insanely jealous of all the friends the more popular kids seem to have. Because you can't get attention you obsessively desire by being outgoing, energetic, playful or just fun to be around you lash out with your writing at the others with character flaws you have deemed they possess because they wont (sic) play with you. Grow up."

Look, let's not get crazy. A world where formerly lonely, overweight, repressed, ugly kids aren't allowed to use writing as a way to lash out would be a world without words. And I, for one, don't want to live in a world without words.