30 April 2012 Comments Off

Why I’m uneasy about the WHCA dinner

I have a confession: Since the early 1990s I have attended — and enjoyed–several White House Correspondents Association dinners. But I’ve come to believe they’ve done more harm than good.

This annual media spectacle has certainly done me some good over the years. I’ve recruited some fine journalists at various before- and after-parties–and I’ve been recruited for the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve spent some high-quality, off-duty time with colleagues. I’ve seen some great comedians and heard some great jokes (Stephen Colbert was best, Rich Little was worst). I’ve met some Hollywood stars I’ve admired (thanks for coming, Robert Duvall). I’ve heard three presidents deliver the best lines their speechwriters could write (Obama was best).

So why do I feel so uneasy when spring comes around and I see coverage of journalists romping at this peculiar prom, even though I haven’t been for a while?

It’s because all this media preening fuels a widespread belief  that the Washington press corps is just a part of the royal court, obsessed with preserving its position, whoever the ruler and assorted courtiers may be.

I don’t believe reporters go easy on covering politicians just because they’ve shared some Chardonnay and tilapia in the airless basement of the Washington Hilton. But the annual schmoozefest does nothing to dispel the public’s growing distrust of the press and much to reinforce it.

According to Gallup, only about 43 percent of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the press, a drop of more than 25 points over the past 35 years. Recently, Jay Rosen wrote about the decline in trust and offered some possible explanations for it. There was very active discussion by commenters, resulting in some additional possible explanations, including the notion that we are in such a culture war that 20 percent distrust the press because of perceived “liberal bias,” 20 percent because they believe the right is “working the refs” and 10 percent because they’re fed up with feckless  ”he said, she said” journalism.

However, the explanation that crystallized my discomfort with the WHCA dinner and helped explain my discomfort each April was this one:

  • “Just part of the power structure now. Over Twitter, investigative journalist Phil Williams wrote, “Press more popular when viewed as standing up to power. Then it became part of power structure.” From this point of view, the glamorization of journalism after Watergate, combined with the influence of celebrity within the news tribe, plus the growing concentration of media ownership in a few large companies that themselves seek influence, had made mockery of the journalist as a courageous truthteller standing outside the halls of power.”
As Rosen put it, the WHCA dinner is ground zero of this explanation.

Who can blame the public for believing the Washington press corps and the people they cover are  engaged in a perpetual kind of Kabuki drama whose main purpose is to stay in or keep access to those halls of power? Even as I write this, I resist this notion. I think of the many principled Washington journalists–superb colleagues from many news organizations– who would vehemently dispute this and insist that their coverage isn’t affected at all by sharing a red carpet with the people they cover (and a lot of celebrities they don’t).

And I believe them.

But distrust in the press will not have to drop much further before it won’t matter what  those journalists report.





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