Milbank’s Nasty Missive from the Press Secretary

Jay Carney may not be reporters’ best friend

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, in one of his first columns in a self-imposed Palin-free month—though he has a very odd definition of “Palin-free,” if this interview is anything to go by—is offering a counterintuitive take on the White House’s appointment of former Time-man Jay Carney to the position of press secretary.

You see, apparently Carney sent Milbank a none-too-kind e-mail while serving vice president Joe Biden. Here’s Milbank’s lede (you have to appreciate the Hacks Anonymous honesty of the second line):

The e-mail, coming from the Executive Office of the President and addressed to me, had a catchy subject line: “You are a hack.”

This was tough—but accurate. I read on.

The body of the message began with the phrase “shamelessly misrepresented,” continued on to refer to “your hackneyed storyline” and concluded: “Fabrication is a legitimate tool—for fiction. You should try it; it suits you.”

The sender was one James F. Carney, then a spokesman for Vice President Biden, now the incoming White House press secretary. I mentioned the e-mail to colleagues and was surprised to learn that some of them, too, had received the occasional nastygram from Carney, sometimes graced with a barnyard epithet. Happily, these official White House correspondences will be stored for eternity in the National Archives, along with the Declaration of Independence.

The incident is a kickoff to Milbank’s consideration of how Carney may behave in his role as press secretary. While admitting that he has the advantage of following Robert Gibbs—“surpassed only by Ari Fleischer as the most unpopular press secretary of recent decades”—Milbank points out that Carney’s press background may in fact prove a disadvantage for his former colleagues.

On paper, the 45-year-old Carney fits the part. He doesn’t come from the war rooms of political campaigns, and his long career with Time, some of it on the White House beat, means he’ll know how to do the care and feeding of reporters that his predecessor neglected.

But those who think the former Moscow correspondent will usher in an Obama glasnost could be disappointed. Carney, if he feels pressure to prove his loyalty to Obama, may be even more guarded with information. In fact, the preferred candidate of many in the press corps was Bill Burton, Gibbs’s deputy. Burton, because of his unquestioned loyalty to Obama, may have been looser.

While a potentially guarded press secretary could chill the easy flow of information in the White House—and that’s really as speculative an assertion as those being made by the pundits who think Carney’s appointment will reset WH-press relations—I can’t help but partly admire the moxie of this man who pens such critical and blunt “nastygrams.” And I’d encourage any and all who have been on their receiving ends to come forward, bravely as Milbank has, and show us your own mean-spirited missives.

If it turns out he’s a decent enough media critic, he might just be great for the job he’s lucked into. Heck, if he’d take the pay cut, CJR might just hire him to write this blog.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,