By Brendan Gants
Radical pundits and ideologues are launching unprecedented attacks on the credibility of the mainstream media, threatening to deny Americans common factual information, Dana Milbank ’90 said in a Morse College Master’s Tea.
Milbank, the White House correspondent for the Washington Post and the author of “Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush,” shared with students his impressions of political reporting, as well as some of his experiences as a journalist. He focused his remarks on the role of objectivity in the American media.
Milbank cited a poll from mid-October which showed large majorities of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion and that Saddam Hussein’s regime was providing substantial support to al Qaeda. Milbank said this showed that liberals and conservatives are actually working not just with separate views, but with separate facts.
“It used to be the saying, ‘You’re entitled to your opinion but not your own facts,’” Milbank said. “Now you are entitled to your own facts.”
The Bush administration, Milbank said, has skillfully manipulated the era of 24-hour news, using reporters’ deadline pressure to divert their attention away from checking the truthfulness of the administration’s statements.
“There’s really no penalty for not telling the truth,” Milbank said.
Milbank said that partisan antagonism, especially from Republicans, toward the mainstream media has convinced large numbers of Americans to distrust the press and seek alternative sources of information.
“I think what’s going on is people are saying, ‘I can’t believe what I’m reading in the newspaper, so I’m going to have to go to Rush [Limbaugh] or I’m going to have to go to Salon.com,’ and they get something that reinforces what they already believe,” he said.
While Milbank said a majority of journalists are liberal, he said their political leanings do not necessarily translate into biased coverage.
“The fact is the newsrooms are pretty liberal, and we bend over backwards to be fair to all sides,” he said.
Milbank described the White House press corps as “a cordial and even friendly group.” He drew some laughs when he compared his colleagues to a group of high school students, with television reporters as the jocks and cheerleaders, wire service reporters representing the student government, and newspapermen as the geeks and misfits.
Milbank held summer internships at several newspapers during his Yale years. Prior to joining the Washington Post, he was a senior editor at The New Republic, where he was the magazine’s White House correspondent. Before that, he worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Morse College Master Frank Keil praised Milbank’s reporting as “realistic and insightful,” and said his approach to journalism was unique.
“He really is unusual in the way in which he tries to go beyond the normal reporting of statements and get to the deeper issues,” Keil said.
Patrick Fitzsimmons ’06 said he appreciated the candor with which Milbank shared his reflections.
“I thought it was very informative,” Fitzsimmons said. “It was interesting to hear his perspective on journalism, and the problems of journalism in covering elections.”
Milbank is a former editorials editor for the News.