06/11/2010 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unbearable Lightness of Reading Dana Milbank

Feel free to read Dana Milbank if that sort of thing appeals to you, but don't imagine for a minute that you're learning anything. That would be like studying the French Revolution by reading Marie Antoinette's cake recipes. The Milbank school of journalism -- which at this point is American journalism -- doesn't just fail to inform. Somehow it's able to subtract from a reader's overall body of information, as if by magic, leaving her or him even less informed than they were before.

That was made clear this week during the annual conference held by the Campaign for America's Future, the progressive organization where I am a Fellow (though I certainly don't speak for the organization). An objective reporter would have found much of substance to cover there, especially the widespread agreement that the progressive movement must lead the political debate rather than yielding that role to the Democratic Party establishment. In saner journalistic times, that's a heckuva story. But with newspaper readership down and cable news fueling an ADD-like journalistic tone, publishers have apparently decided to take a different tack: politics as gossip journalism.

That's not a new observation, of course, but the Milbank School takes the creeping Lindsey Lohanism of the American media to new heights. (Actually that's not fair to Lindsay, who is a surprisingly gifted actor in the right vehicle -- I'm referring, of course, to her press coverage.) Politico is often credited with the celebretization of political journalism, but Milbank has an even longer history of practicing the craft. (And let us not overlook the First Czarina of the Gossip Empire, Maureen Dowd.) That's why the mournful cry often rises from information-hungry readers like ululations in a Sophocles tragedy: Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

The two-and-a-half day conference was punctuated by precisely twenty-three minutes of protest. That was the amount of time it took Speaker Nancy Pelosi to address the conference -- a task she conducted heroically under challenging circumstances. Guess which twenty-three minutes Milbank chose to cover. We'll pause for a split-second to let you think ... Hey, you're right! Now guess what theme he chose ... right again! Liberal House Speaker heckled ... by liberals. How ironic! How droll! How celebrity-journalism-like!

How ... inaccurate. Actually, Pelosi was not heckled by liberals. She was shouted down -- quite rudely -- by a single-issue group that treated her even less respectfully than Kanye West treated Taylor Swift. They didn't even say "I'ma let you finish." The group apparently supports the Community Choice Act, a good bill that -- ironically, for you Milbankian irony junkies -- the Speaker reportedly supports. Memo to Dana: Single-issue advocates are not "liberals" or "conservatives," and the demonstrators expressed no political agenda. But "liberals heckle a liberal" is too juicy a tag to sacrifice just because it's inaccurate. Code Pink, which really is a progressive group, was also there and unfurled a sign about Israel policy, but they did not heckle the Speaker. They failed to provide Milbank with a catchy hook for his piece.

That means they failed to perform their patriotic duty. Don't these lefties want to save the newspaper industry? They should realize how much the country needs a medium that provides ledes like this one: "For 17 months, anger at President Obama and congressional Democrats has been pooling on the left. On Tuesday morning, it spilled onto the floor of an Omni Shoreham ballroom and splashed all over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi." Now that's great political prose! I. F. Stone, eat your heart out.

Consistency and logical coherence are optional in the Milbank school. You've already read his first sentence: Anger has been pooling on the Left for 17 months. Now read the opener to his second paragraph: "The celebrated San Francisco liberal took the stage to greet what should have been a friendly audience ..." (Note the use of the word "celebrated." In Milbank's world, celebrity rules.)

How can a competent writer or analyst say this "should have been a friendly audience" after he's just said that the same audience has been "angry" for a year and a half? That's incoherent. The Milbank School apparently believes that surprise, like irony and celebrity, helps sell newspapers. So forget logic -- "move those units," baby!

Let's be clear: There is a sense of frustration with the White House and Congress, and it was expressed at the conference. But the sentiments expressed at the conference were not personal, and they included recognition that, given the right strategies, progressives can engage productively with a Democratic leadership that also has accomplished some meaningful things. But let's face it: That story isn't "splashy." "Liberals are mad at Daddy and Mommy" fits more closely to the Milbankian style. They don't permit him to write that the "San Francisco liberal" (get it? lattes and hippies?) was "eaten by her own."

The real discontent expressed at the conference stems from a number of unresolved problems which center around our ongoing economic crisis, and the sense that the government isn't doing enough to address them. This picture will help put the conference's themes into context:


That captures the urgency of one of the conference's key messages - we need jobs now. The blue lines show the Administration's expected unemployment rate with and without the stimulus, compare with today's reality: Our jobless rate is far worse with the stimulus than the White House thought it would be without it. Yet, instead of proposing more jobs-centered stimulus, the Administration's focusing on deficit reduction.

Milbank didn't address this issue or anything else of substance. Instead he used precious column inches to quote lyrics from a song played during the break, and to observe that "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" was one of the other tunes coming through the loudspeakers. His hurried scribbling of words from an old MTV hit may explain why he was unable to fit more substantive information in his notebook.

Poltico's coverage of the event looked like Pulitzer Prize material when compared to Milbank's vapid scribblings. Reporter Glenn Thrush's headline was "Left to Obama: We're Not Happy," which was certainly a major theme of the conference. His first quote was from Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn: ""We are not apathetic, we are not depressed -- we are willing to get out and fight for the people who fight for us." That captures of one the conference's themes. But the comment that "criticism of Obama during the lightly attended opening day was more visceral than issue specific" leaves the sneaking suspicion that Thrush only attended plenary presentations. If he had attended breakout sessions, chatted with the authors signing their books throughout the day, or interviewed the many policy experts and activists in attendance, he would have encountered a lot of specifics.

At least Politico's readers have some idea what took place. Milbank's will have come away with this impression: Liberals are eating their own, and their digestive process is leaving big splashy pools that some celebrity from San Francisco stepped in while speaking to people who were critical of her, although that was really some other people, and which in any case comes as a total surprise because they've only had a mounting sense of anger for the last 17 months, which means they should have been really friendly to her. People in wheelchairs suddenly became spokespeople for the liberal community rather than activists for the disabled, and they rode their wheelchairs right through those pools of boiling anger, and all those people were angry at Mommy and Daddy and probably at themselves, but the details don't really matter and I want to report this in a catchy, celebrity-driven way and besides hey Fatboy Slim and the Rolling Stones are on the radio and I love this song and my notebook's almost full and, and ...

And for God's sake, please buy this and save the American newspaper -- because, after all, how would people stay informed without reporters like us?

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

Website: Eskow and Associates