Media elite vs. blogger peasants

The White House allowed a mere commoner among the Beltway peerage -- how indecorous!

By Gene Lyons
Published July 9, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)
U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, June 23, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, June 23, 2009.

Court societies invariably expend amazing amounts of time and energy squabbling over arcane matters of order and degree. Decaying aristocracies become obsessed with hierarchical minutiae: who outranks whom, and for precisely which reasons?

So it is among the lords and ladies of Washington's beleaguered press corps. Preoccupied with status issues in the best of times, many appear to find today's economic turmoil doubly unnerving. Will metropolitan newspapers survive in anything resembling their present form? If not, who will populate the capital's fashionable drawing rooms?

Have they made their way into the royal antechamber to find peasants in muddy boots putting their feet on the furniture?

Readers who suspect hyperbole are encouraged to watch "Mouthpiece Theater," a TV skit by Washington Post political writers Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza. Posted to the newspaper's Web site, it's a takeoff on PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre," featuring the pair costumed as fops wearing silk smoking jackets and ascots and dispensing witless satire.

Alas, the duo's leaden humor only underscores their own devotion to gossip, trivia and Beltway conventional wisdom. For example, what's funny about the "public option" in health insurance? If he doesn't get his way, Dr. Howard Dean might scream again. Ha, ha, hah. In short, Dean, silly man, may actually give a damn.

Meanwhile, what makes Milbank scream? A breach in decorum: a commoner treated as a member of the Beltway peerage. During President Obama's recent press conference, he invited a question from one Nico Pitney, a blogger with Huffington Post, a liberal-leaning Web site. Somebody at the White House had noticed that Pitney was in regular contact with Iranian protesters.

"I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet," Obama said. "Do you have a question?"

Indeed Pitney did, as he'd been invited to the press conference for exactly that purpose. It turned out to be a tough one: "Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards?"

Almost needless to say, Obama ducked it, declining to pronounce upon the legitimacy of Iran's government. The White House believes that doing so would lend credence to the regime's false claim that the protesters are American stooges.

Even so, Pitney's question did succeed in dramatizing the administration's unwillingness to take sides, conveying to Iranians who'd urged him to ask Obama exactly how things stood. They're on their own.

Milbank was nevertheless infuriated. A mere blogger had been recognized at court. In a column that neglected to quote Pitney's question or Obama's answer, he railed at the impropriety: "Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing ... The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn't so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, 'The Obama Show.'"

Merciful heavens, stagecraft at the White House? Surely not. In a face-off on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Milbank continued to allege, based on zero evidence, that Pitney's question was scripted by the White House. He'd have been more convincing in his "Mouthpiece Theater" outfit.

The young man gave as good as he got, mocking Milbank for wasting his own face time with the president chatting about Obama's svelte appearance in a bathing suit. Altogether, it was not one of journalism's finest moments.

Next, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth got caught acting like an impoverished British aristocrat selling tours of the ancestral manse. Specifically, a promotional flier sent out by the newspaper offered lobbyists an "underwriting opportunity" to purchase exclusive dinner parties at her home attended by Post editors and reporters, members of Congress, White House officials and other "stakeholders" in public issues.

"Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons," the brochure urged. Conversation, it promised, would be strictly off-the-record. "Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." The first gathering, expected to raise as much as $250,000 for the newspaper's bottom line, was scheduled for July 21. The topic du jour would be healthcare. In short, the newspaper promised "an exclusive opportunity to participate in the healthcare reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done."

Ah, the select few. It wasn't immediately clear if Lord Milbank would attend. No sooner did the upstart learn of this exclusive soiree than the newsroom erupted, editor Marcus Brauchli thundered that, "You cannot buy access to a Washington Post journalist." Publisher Weymouth, who inherited the job from her late grandmother Katharine Graham, blamed the whole thing on an overly enthusiastic marketing executive, doubtless a fellow of low and peasant birth.

© 2009 by Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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