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Crossing the Line on a Cable Show?

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."

If Post editors insist he is not an opinion columnist, then Milbank ought to drop the funny hats and stay away from comedy shows.

That said, I often enjoy Milbank's eye on the Washington scene. He is at his best when going to an important event as an astute observer.

He does sometimes cross the line into commentary -- in an Oct. 12 column, he counted how many times President Bush blinked during a television interview, and in a Nov. 3 column he frequently referred to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's rumpled clothes and personal awkwardness. Both columns seemed like put-downs. On Jan. 27, he wrote that President Bush gave a "Bourbonic performance" at a news conference.

But I loved his Feb. 1 column about watching Supreme Court justices decide whether to clap, sit or stand during the State of the Union address. And writing about a Jan. 25 hearing on lobbying reform, he followed quotations of senators with mentions of how much money they had received from lobbyists in recent years. Cleverly done.

Most of the critical mail I got last week came from conservatives, but I've also received complaints from liberals when they think Milbank has skewered Democrats, especially in a Jan. 31 column about a liberal political event that featured former attorney general Ramsey Clark and antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan.

Milbank said, "More of my targets are Republicans than Democrats: that's because Republicans control the White House and Congress."

Milbank has his fans. Reader Patrick Sprouse of McLean wrote: "I watch Keith Olbermann's show regularly and the rapport [between] Dana and Keith is great. Olbermann's show often incorporates humor . . . and it's great to see The Washington Post has not lost its sense of humor either! Stand firmly behind great reporters like Dana Milbank, who work hard at speaking truth to power, and aren't afraid of the 'shells' that are fired from both sides of the political spectrum!"

It all comes down to what Stephen Stanford of Saltillo, Miss., wrote: "If you are going to keep using his work, how about labeling it as opinion and not news?"

Exactly.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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