behind the news

#Dickwhisperer: A History

The tussle that makes us all look "pathetic"
June 29, 2009

Twitter, as of yesterday afternoon, has a new a new hashtag: #Dickwhisperer. Nope, not a typo: #Dickwhisperer. This being a reference to the exchange—entertaining, granted, but only by virtue of its supremely cringe-inducing awkwardness—that took place between Huffington Post editor Nico Pitney and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank on yesterday morning’s Reliable Sources. The exchange that became so heated and, finally, so insult-driven that, during the show’s commercial break, Milbank apparently leaned over to Pitney and whispered, “You’re such a dick.”

What a proud moment—for Milbank, for Pitney, for Amanda Carpenter (the token conservative pundit on the panel, present yet off-screen for nearly the full length of quarrel), for us viewers, and, of course, for Howard Kurtz, facilitator of the smackdown. Kurtz had ostensibly booked the two journalists—and then placed them in aren’t-you-glad-you-use-Dial proximity, next to each other, at Reliable‘s guest table—so that they could debate the ethics of presidential press conferences without the pesky moderation of written words or, you know, moderators. “I had @nicopitney & Dana Milbank on precisely so they could debate Nico’s Obama question w/ little interference from me,” Kurtz Twittered yesterday afternoon. “He wanted that too.”

The discussion could have advanced and contextualized the event that, perhaps inevitably, has come to be known as Pitneygate: the debate that arose after Pitney, who has distinguished both himself and his publication with his nearly round-the-clock coverage of the events in Iran, was invited by the White House to ask, at Tuesday’s presidential press conference, a question from an Iranian. (Pitney accepted the invitation.)

The questions raised by Pitneygate are legitimate and important ones. Reliable‘s meet-up could have played a productive, if not definitive, role in answering them; could have helped us understand the relationship between both the president and the press, and between the traditional media and the nontraditional. The whole thing could have been a true debate—the legacy Post versus the upstart Post, sharing perspectives and exchanging ideas—rather than a petty, petulant slapping match, good for laughs, but little else.

But here is what we got in yesterday’s skirmish: a ‘he said/he said’ debate whose goals seemed to be nothing more than salvation-of-the-ego and control-of-the-story. Each journalist came into battle, as it were, armed with facts–which is to say, oppo research—which is to say, vitriolic accusations—designed, apparently, to make his fellow combatant look as inept/lazy/mendacious/icky as possible. (Essentially: You’re an idiot! And your facts are wrong! … No, you’re an idiot! And your facts are wrong!)

PITNEY: The reason President Obama made that comment is because he was trying to make a point that he was taking a question from an Iranian. And it’s interesting that Dana, of all people, wrote this column very negatively. I mean, this is a person, Dana, who, when he had a chance to ask Obama a question, he approached him in the hall during the campaign and asked him not one, but multiple questions about how he looked in a bathing suit.

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I mean, that to me is pathetic, and I would — you couldn’t stage manage me into that, Dana.

MILBANK: Well, Nico has some — evidently, some very interesting things to do.

What I have never done in my life, Howie, is worked in collusion with an administration, whether it’s this one or another one. I believe that whether it’s Nico Pitney, with “The Huffington Post,” or whether it’s Carl Cameron, with Fox News, the White House should not be calling somebody the night before saying, we are going to call on you if you ask a question on a particular subject asked in a certain way….

KURTZ: Do you think there’s some jealousy involved by maybe the establishment in the fact that you got that very prominent second question?

PITNEY: Oh, I mean, I think it’s jealousy. I think it’s hypocrisy.

You know, Dana wrote a column, as his colleague at “The Washington Post,” Greg Sargent, pointed out, hailing the “Mission Accomplished” banner moment in May, 2003, the day after.

MILBANK: Look, there’s plenty of fiction here, but I brought some other — shall we go through the record here, Nico?

PITNEY: Go through what record?

MILBANK: Your Web site was complaining about I was not holding the Bush White House to account. I’d like to say that here’s a full list of documentation of me holding the Bush White House to account….

Let’s pose — can we just pose one question, Nico? If the White House called up Fox News and said, “Major Garrett, we will call on you tomorrow if you ask a question about health care, and you ask it in a certain way?” Would you say that’s OK?

PITNEY: They didn’t say in a certain way. See, this is dishonest. And it’s been dishonesty and errors from the beginning.

The problem with slinging mud, of course, is that the slinger tends to get just as dirty as the target. And both Pitney and Milbank, in the exchange, ended up looking, as Time‘s Michael Scherer put it, “like petulant politicians.” After a few minutes, as the novelty of the insult-filled-fight-on-morning-TV wore off, the thing just became…sad. Not just because of its vague airing-dirty-laundry-on-national-TV intimations (not in front of the viewing audience, honey), and not just because both journalists are so much better than their performances yesterday let on. Sadder still was the fact that what got attention, yesterday, unsurprisingly, wasn’t the substance of the fight, but rather the fact of the fight itself.

Over at CafePress, you can now buy all manner of clothing, accessories, and gadgets commemorating You’reSuchADickGate. For sale are T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, hoodies, onesies, baby bibs, coffee mugs, messenger bags, mousepads, water bottles, pet bowls, wall clocks, aprons, boxers, and, of course, “the classic thong” (Made in the USA!)—all printed with a photo of Dana Milbank and emblazoned with the line “THE DICK WHISPERER.” Again: what a proud, proud moment.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.