Last month's White House Correspondents' Dinner was a disgusting spectacle of excess. Elite journalists — including Don Gonyea of NPR and Caren Bohan of Reuters — partied hard with politicians and celebrities. The cozy relationships showcased at the annual dinner have created controversy before, but this year's event reaffirmed the disdain many Americans feel for the mainstream media. It was a confirmation of the unwillingness of the national press to play the aggressive and independent role that is desperately needed.
The guest list for this dinner was otherworldly. According Politico, Fox News brought Kim Kardashian and her mom, while Greta Van Susteren of Fox brought Lindsay Lohan. Kardashian and Lohan were "gracious guests" and "really fun," Van Susteren reported. ABC brought Sofia Vergara of the TV sitcom Modern Family to sit alongside General Martin Dempsey, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bloomberg brought "it" swimsuit model Kate Upton. The Huffington Post's eclectic list included US Senator Rand Paul, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and US Attorney General Eric Holder. California Governor Jerry Brown got in with Newsweek, and a couple of organizations brought along some Google bigwigs. Since the US Department of Justice is investigating Google for anti-trust violations, it makes sense they would want to nosh with Holder. CBS brought Congressman Allen West, who believes that members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are actually members of the Communist Party and was recently quoted as saying that LGBT discrimination does not exist in the workplace. Not to be outdone, NPR, the trusted national news source for many in the East Bay, brought singer Mary J. Blige as well as one of the Facebook bazillionaires. The New Yorker was on hand as well.
Many Democratic and Republican politicians and campaign strategists attended. These folks love this event; it humanizes them, painting a protective coating over their misdeeds and deception. The "security" establishment was there as well — the secretary of defense and the director of the CIA, along with the aforementioned head of the Joint Chiefs. Since they were so charming, witty, and urbane at the event, they couldn't be doing anything wrong, could they? Tut, tut.
Many who should know better sheepishly defended their participation. When confronted, the wonderful actress Rosario Dawson said she was there to network on behalf of Latino voters, adding: "I'm not taking sides." Liberal talking head Cenk Uygur went but claimed he recognized the contradictions. "The president spoke at the dinner itself. ... It was genuinely funny. ... At every joke and smile, he seemed like the most likeable guy in the world. [But] I kept thinking, how could that nice guy be the one who just ordered 'signature' drone strikes where we bomb people without even knowing who they are?" Good try, Uygur, but as veteran newsman Tom Brokaw, one of the few journalists to criticize the event, said, the event steals the "soul" of the journalists who go. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Brokaw opined that the American people feel that political reporting has become a "closed game" that "doesn't address what their real concerns are." As to the dinner, he said, "We're more interested in celebrities than we are in the concerns of real folks who are out there." It was, he said, "just the worst kind of symbolism," as well as an "exercise simply in hedonism."
Everyone wants to have fun, and if you search on the Internet you can hear some hilarious jokes from comedians and politicians at the event. But two worlds exist in this country today. For the elites, including the national press, life is very, very good. In Main Street America, the story is different. That our national press does not get this, and is willing to show it so publicly, is truly revealing. Instead of competing to get the sexiest celebrities to sit at their tables, why didn't more of these journalists write about the current shutdown of important regulatory activity by the Obama administration as it triangulates for the election? In just the last month or so, the administration has blocked regulatory action on child obesity, child labor, and even sunscreen standards designed to prevent skin cancer. All these regulations had been scrupulously studied and laboriously developed for years.
Of course, a cozy and incestuous relationship between the elite press and politicians is neither new nor uniquely American. The United Kingdom is going through a riveting phone-hacking scandal. Journalists, mainly employed by newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, hacked cellphones of many people, often with the help of high-level British police and politicians. Murdoch, of course, owns Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. The scandal also has uncovered a seamy relationship between British politicians and Murdoch's people. Last week, Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of Murdoch's most profitable newspaper, The News of the World, admitted that she regularly parties with British Prime Minister David Cameron. During Britain's last national election, the two had a heated texting relationship. Cameron, we learned, would end his texts with LOL, which he thought meant "lots of love." Brooks had to tell him that LOL means "laugh out loud" in text-speak.
Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic former governor of Michigan and a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, attended the dinner as a guest of ABC. In defending herself, she admitted that the event purposely blurs the line between entertainment and reality. This admission may be the most important meaning of the event. Any challenge to current problems must be based on today's reality. If reality can be obscured by entertainment, it makes confronting our problems much more difficult. We know that reality TV does this, and while watching reality TV can be as much fun as eating a fried Twinkie, it is often just as harmful.
Of course, I am sure that Don Gonyea and his NPR pals mock Jerry Springer and reality television. But by participating in the blurring of reality and entertainment that is the Correspondents' dinner, these journalists are aligning themselves with E! and TMZ. As such, these self-styled "serious" journalists undergird the dangerous contemporary notion that facts no longer matter, mimicking the line of Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller that "the truth is whatever people will believe is the truth." That this behavior comes from our supposed media watchdogs is much more damaging than Jerry Springer ever was.
These journalists should be ashamed of themselves.