If you wanted to find definitive proof that the US news media is the most supine, conformist gaggle of brown nosers in the western world, one yearly event removes all the guess work. DC's annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is the place where journalists, celebrities and politicians get together to make a mockery of their professions, and generally denigrate the entire notion of the fourth estate.
I didn't watch the events from Saturday night. I hear it was pretty funny. Obama cracked jokes about being a Muslim socialist, ribbed CNN for their shoddy reporting, and pretended to be Daniel Day Lewis pretending to be him. Conan O'Brian poked fun at the news media, both political parties and the President. Celebrities took photos with politicians, and reporters asked celebrities questions about politics. From all the reports, the night was a hoot.
Which is great. People work hard and deserve a night off to laugh at themselves. At the end of the day, celebrities, journalists and politicians are all human and should take time out to drink and let their guards down.
But not all at the same time, and not all in the same room.
Here's the thing - politicians do serious work. They make changes to government policies that affect millions of people at home and abroad. The government changes the tax code, and millions of people can be plunged into poverty. A politician beats the drums for war, a country is invaded and hundreds of thousands of people get hurt and die. The President decides to allow oil companies to lay new pipelines to transport oil, and it could have a devastating impact on our natural environment.
It is the media job to report on all of this and tell the truth regardless of whether it is popular or not. Journalists should have a healthy distance from the people they cover so that they can be objective. Downing cocktails at fancy hotels and cracking jokes with each other might be great fun, but if you're drinking and laughing alongside the same people you are paid to criticize, the chances you'll take them down for anything serious diminish with each round at the bar.
I've been living in DC for over a year now, and I get a pretty good idea how this place works. The politicians and news media have a very weird, incestuous relationship that essentially involves copious amounts of mutual back scratching. The big players all know each other and do each other favors to help each other's careers. Their kids all go to the same schools, and they all trawl the same cocktail parties. When it comes to reporting, serious topics are generally avoided, or covered in the same manner as a baseball game would be (ie. how it plays politically). The ramifications of serious reporting are too dangerous for most outlets because they will be frozen out of the game and no longer given access to the big interviews. Politicians grant interviews to those who will further their strategic objectives, and not to those who will make them look bad. If everyone in the press decided to protest this and refused to throw softball questions at politicians, you'd probably see something resembling serious reporting at some point. But asking politicians about their pets gets them access and helps boost ratings.
When the Bush Administration built a fictitious case for war against Iraq, anyone with half a brain could see it was nonsense. Yet the media kept its collective mouth shut, and America went to war against a country that posed no threat to it whatsoever. Bush and the media then had a good laugh over the debacle at the 94th White House Correspondents Dinner in 2oo4, with Bush showing the audience a joke photo of him looking for WMD's in the Oval office:
Hilarious. Particularly as Iraq was descending into civil war and American soldiers Bush sent there were being picked off like flies.
The event has also become increasingly celebrity focused, with E! doing red carpet coverage for the first time ever. Why? Because the White House knows that celebrities create a giant distraction from the dirty business of politics, and reporters will spend most of the time asking them meaningless questions and posing for photos. Take the Politico memo Gawker managed to get its hand on that detailed the questions their reporters were to ask celebrities. Here's a sample of the hard ball questions directed at the very important people at the dinner:
Shaq: Do you think Chris Christie would make a good president? (He recently met the governor)
Kevin Spacey: How would Frances [sic] Underwood behave at a dinner like this?
Ashley Judd: What if you run into Mitch McConnell? Will that be awkward?
Scarlett Johansson: Do you ever e-mail with President Obama anymore?
Nicole Kidman: How is this different than a Hollywood red carpet event?
Nice to know major news outlets spend their resources getting the major scoops.
To be fair to Politico though, they did interview Tom Brokaw, who refused to go to the dinner on principle.
"What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country?" said the veteran news anchor. "Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?’ And what comes through the screen on C-SPAN that night is the latter, and not the former.”
Guess who's not going to be invited next year...