Crossing the Line on a Cable Show?

(Msnbc's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann")

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dana Milbank can be controversial with readers. The Post reporter has his fans -- and I can be one of them -- but I think his appearance on MSNBC last week was a mistake in judgment.

Milbank wore hunting gear -- an orange stocking cap and striped vest and gloves -- on Keith Olbermann's show Monday night and made several meant-to-be-humorous remarks about Vice President Cheney's hunting accident. Here's an example from the transcript:

Olbermann: And will there be more hunting trips? I mean, would you actually go hunting with the vice president at this point, even dressed the way you are?

Milbank: I understand that Pat Fitzgerald has been offered an invitation to the next one.

Fitzgerald is the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, in which Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted on charges of perjury.

The mail was swift and sure. I got hundreds of e-mails, many prompted by conservative blogs. A number of readers asked the same question as Mark O'Brien of Mechanicsburg, Pa.: "Is Milbank an opinion columnist or a reporter?"

The answer isn't simple. Milbank, a national political reporter, writes the frequent Washington Sketch column on Page 2 and also does the occasional news story. Editors here do not consider him an opinion columnist.

Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for national news, said Milbank's column, patterned after similar columns in British newspapers, "observes and reports about the theater of politics. He is a genius at capturing an element of how this city works in a voice that is original and delightful to take in. His column is not ideological. He doesn't take a stand on issues or pass judgment on policy. In that role, he has a little more freedom than a conventional staff writer might."

A second question is easier to answer. From reader Eric Welch: "Does Dana Milbank's wearing of a bright orange hat and vest to cover the vice president's accidental shooting of a friend convey professionalism and objective journalism by Washington Post standards?"

Spayd said she felt Milbank "crossed the line" on his TV appearance. "What he intended as a playful joke was viewed by many as mocking and unprofessional, and understandably so." Suffice it to say that he has been taken to The Post's version of the woodshed and told not to do that again.

This is the second time that Milbank's remarks on that show have caused a row. In October, he spoke in a fake Iraqi accent, which many readers felt was over the line. Milbank said he has appeared on the show -- which he describes as "half news, half shtick" -- wearing a Santa hat, brandishing a cigar and having an anvil dangled over his head.

Washingtonpost.com, which is under different management than the print Post, lists Milbank as an opinion columnist. I think that's right. Milbank said, "I realize there's a fine line between making observational judgments and expressing an opinion."


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