Dana Milbank on Covering the White House and Nicknames We Can’t Publish

As part of our continuing series of interviews with political journalists and commentators, this week Campaign Desk interviews Washington Post White House reporter Dana Milbank.

Bryan Keefer: Ken Auletta wrote a much talked-about piece a few weeks in the New Yorker about the way the White House treats the media. What do you think is new and unique about the way this administration handles the press?

Dana Milbank: What is new and unique is not the press strategy but the effective implementation of it. Even in its fourth year, this White House has been remarkably good about keeping its internal deliberations under wraps, then announcing it with unified voice. There are obvious exceptions, such as the Paul O’Neill book, but these remain the exceptions.

BK: At the end of Ken Auletta’s article, he quotes Bush advisor Mark McKinnon suggesting that reporters on the White House beat are, in some ways, too talented for the job they have. How do you and other members of the press corps deal with the day-to-day pressures — or tedium — of the job?

DM: That’s nice of Mark to say, and better than the prevailing view that we’re a bunch of dopes. It’s a well-kept secret that for every ounce of glamour on the White House beat, there’s a pound of drudgery. With two daily briefings and a steady stream of press releases and presidential remarks and travel, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing nothing but stenography.

BK: As a working reporter, how would you rate the media’s coverage of the campaign so far?

DM: Everybody’s a media critic these days, so I’ll play the devil’s advocate and say we’ve done a good job. Where we are weakest is in making predictions — just ask nominee Howard Dean — but we have been good at capturing the trends, issues and personalities in the race.

BK: What other reporters do you particularly enjoy reading?

DM: All members of The Washington Post political team, particularly Tom Edsall and his dispatches on the Washington journalists’ softball league.

BK: President Bush is famous for giving nicknames to members of the press corps. Do you have a nickname?

DM: It’s not printable in a family publication.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.