Dana Milbank, Ideologue

The WaPo columnist's latest reflects the press bias for action

In his recent blog post on “the actual ideology of the American press,” NYU professor Jay Rosen identified Dana Milbank—the extravagantly contrarian columnist for The Washington Post—as “one the most extreme ideologues in the business.” The label fit, Rosen explained, because of Milbank’s insistence on characterizing political debate as consisting of two unreasonable poles, and himself as a truth-teller caught in the middle—a posture so habitual and inflexible that it has become an ideology.

That tendency is not especially on display in Milbank’s column today, about President Obama’s dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But another assumption so persistent that it might be considered an ideology—a demand for action, and an equation between action and “leadership”—is.

The theme is signaled in the headline—“Obama shows McChrystal who’s in command”—and spelled out in the body (emphasis added):

For those craving strong presidential leadership, it was reassuring to hear unequivocal words such as “certainty” and “won’t tolerate” on Obama’s lips — and even more reassuring that he was acting on those sentiments. The president, too often passive in the face of challenges to his authority, correctly recognized that McChrystal’s insults to him and his advisers threatened to weaken his administration. For 36 hours, he flirted with a Carter-esque response — expressing anger in words but not deeds — before finally taking decisive action.

And later:

Obama’s best moments as president — pushing health-care legislation across the finish line and defying his own party to escalate the fight in Afghanistan — have come when he resisted his cautious instincts and took bold action. He had another such moment in the Rose Garden on Wednesday.

He vowed anew to “do whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan.” He encouraged the skeptics, many from his own political base, “to remember what this is all about: Our nation is at war.” As important, he let his critics know that there are limits to how far he can be pushed.

In other words: Don’t just stand there, do something! A crisis calls for action, and the cardinal virtue is not so much the wisdom of the action but the act of acting (though one handy test of wisdom is whether the action will anger or inconvenience the president’s usual allies).

It’s possible that the automatic approval of action is simply a function of habitual press carping about whatever’s perceived to be the current president’s standard practice. By the end of his second term, after all, George W. Bush was seen as a failure as much for the times he’d acted heedlessly (the Iraq War) as for the times he’d failed to act (Katrina).

But I think the bias toward action is real. (For example, at the time that Bush was invading Iraq, it wasn’t portrayed in the mainstream press as heedless behavior.) And there a couple reasons for it. One is that the press—and the public—really do have, as Politico’s Roger Simon suggested today, “an Iron Man view of the presidency,” and superheroes can’t just sit around talking. They’ve got worlds to save! That’s why we see language about how the president “took command” not just in columns like Milbank’s but also in straight news accounts.

The second reason is market-based: the press is in the business of writing about news, and action is, by definition, news. The McChrystal scandal produced thirty-six hours of delicious drama for the media to cover, anticipation building all the while. If Obama had decided to leave his general in place, it would’ve been a major buzzkill, and also a smaller headline font on today’s front pages.

None of this means, of course, that pleas for the president to act are necessarily wrong (he is, after all the commander-in-chief). Nor does it mean that contrarian arguments for inaction (“Don’t Just Do Something. Stand There.”) are necessarily right.

It does mean, though, that press assessments of the president that focus on whether he acted rather than the rightness of his actions usually reflect the prejudices of journalists, not the reality of the situation—and so they should usually be ignored.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.