< Why Dana Milbank Loves Newt Gingrich

Transcript

Friday, February 10, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

A few weeks ago Dana Milbank, political columnist for The Washington Post, pinned his heart on his sleeve and wrote a very high profile love letter — to Newt Gingrich. In it he seemed to articulate what a lot of campaign reporters have been feeling, but were perhaps too bashful to say. "How do we love you, Newt Gingrich? Let us count the ways. You're the only thing saving us from a long spring of despair, the only person who can, by extending the presidential race, drive up our audience and bring us the revenues we so desperately need."

All right, he was kidding. But Milbank was acknowledging the vested interest reporters have in prolonging the horse race. Dana, welcome back to the show.

DANA MILBANK:

Good to be with you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Dana, do you know anybody on the campaign trail, and there are hundreds of you, who does not believe that Mitt Romney's nomination is a foregone conclusion?

DANA MILBANK:

You know, some people will say that they don't believe that Romney's nomination is certain, but still, if you woke any of my colleagues up in the middle of the night and said, who's gonna win, it — they will say Mitt Romney and then go back to sleep.

BOB GARFIELD:

So let me read you the four-column headline above the fold in today's Washington Post, your newspaper.

DANA MILBANK:

Yes.

BOB GARFIELD:

It says, "Santorum moves to build on three-state sweep, an enthusiasm gap in a bumpy path for Romney, resurgent candidate raises money, looks to the Midwest." One story says, quote, "In position to contend for the Republican nomination."

DANA MILBANK:

You've got to remember, Bob, that this is the same exact thing we in the media have been doing for the last year or so. We've had what, seven or eight different frontrunners. So we're in many cases inventing races that don't exist. Now, Santorum did surprise Romney, Santorum is raising a lot of money off of this. The Romney folks are rattled about it. But if you step back, as I believe many of my colleagues have done and will continue to do, it's still hard to see a path to the nomination for anybody other than Mitt Romney.

Now, goodness knows, reporters love a horse race. That's why we had frontrunner Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich two or three times. But if you look at the fundamentals, Mitt Romney was in a dominant position to start this and he remains in the dominant position.

BOB GARFIELD:

And that's why in your classically tongue-in-cheek Milbankian way, you penned a love letter to Newt Gingrich for behaving as if there really were some drama about what was going to happen.

DANA MILBANK:

Well sure. When Newt Gingrich gets up there and says the media want him out of the race, I can say there is nothing [LAUGHS] further from the truth. And I'm sure the media are now delighted that Santorum seems to have come back from the dead.

We like conflict and we like to see these things dragged out as long as possible because it's good for viewership or listenership or readership, but it also makes our jobs much more enjoyable. You don't want to sit around and write for five months about the, you know, nuance of tax policy.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, you know, I know you were jokin' around in your piece, but what you were referring to is a — you know, a genuine conflict of interest. If it is indeed in the media's interest to pump up every little development along the path to the nomination, is the audience being misled?

DANA MILBANK:

No, I don't think anybody is being misled. This is how the press works and how is has always worked. We emphasize conflict. You never see a story in The Washington Post or anywhere else about how many planes landed safely at Washington National Airport yesterday. The truth is that's not really what people are looking for either.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, fair enough, but I'm having trouble reconciling the first part of your answer, no, nobody's being misled —

DANA MILBANK:

Mm-hmm —

BOB GARFIELD:

— with the second part, which gets to the kind of hype that you believe journalism is biased towards.

DANA MILBANK:

You know, look, I — I don't want to be in a position of defending everything that happens on cable news. I don't [LAUGHS] — I don't think anybody wants to be in that position. But certainly looking at The Washington Post, I think people who are reading what we're doing are seeing yes, this is an exciting and unexpected development.

But keep reading and you see, well look, Romney is in a dominant position in terms of money-raising, the fundamentals of the race haven't really changed at all.

I mean, I think it's equivalent to writing about a big one-day rise or fall in the stock market, which we'll also make a big deal of, but a sensible reader would read into it more and realize that yes, they — stocks go up and stocks go down, and ultimately the patterns are a lot more predictable.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, but I - you know, I'm going to continue to hold your feet to the fire because, after all, you were the one who led me to the fire. The headline, which is all about Santorum's momentum, the headlines and the leads, it's all about the insurgency. If you report on an insurgency that's not going to ultimately surge anywhere and you know it —

[MILBANK LAUGHS]

— wha — what's the point?

DANA MILBANK:

Well, you don't know it, Bob. I mean, you asked me what people think, and I said, if you wake 'em up in the middle of the night, people are gonna say Romney is going to win this election. But this is a daily newspaper, and so we're leading, as we should, with the news of the day. And this is unexpected news.

I mean, if we took the perspective of counseling our readers not to pay attention to daily fluctuations in the news, there wouldn't be newspapers because there wouldn't be anything to report.

BOB GARFIELD:

You know, I — I read to you from page 1 above the fold of The Post.

DANA MILBANK:

Mm-hmm?

BOB GARFIELD:

I, I should have turned inside to the A Section where there's a story that I think is actually substantially more significant. It's about voter turnout at the primaries thus far that seem to bespeak a lack of enthusiasm —

DANA MILBANK:

Mm-hmm —

BOB GARFIELD:

— among the GOP faithful, voting poorly for whoever —

DANA MILBANK:

Mm-hmm.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

— the candidate is. Should that story have been out on page one, as well?

DANA MILBANK:

[SIGHS] Well, I mean, the editors play the page one game every day, and then that very story you're talking about was played extremely prominently on the website, and a lot of folks were talking about it, as a result of that. I mean, one thing with the transition from the, the paper to the Web is that you see which story is really catching the interest of people, based on the clicks.

BOB GARFIELD:

Dana, thank you so much.

DANA MILBANK:

My great pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:

Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Washington Post.