At the annual Washington D.C. bash, the political media class were more concerned by the lack of Hollywood celebrities to ogle than the fact that half the country holds them in contempt, feels deliberately misunderstood and distrusts nearly everything that they have to say
The Washington Post reported today on the fact that brave members of the Washington D.C. political media class somehow managed to soldier on and enjoy themselves at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and associated glitzy after-parties despite President Trump’s cruel boycott of the event (Trump decided to hold another one of his dubious rally-style events in Pennsylvania).
Without a single hint of self-awareness, the Post reports:
His voters sent him to Washington to break stuff, and this weekend Donald Trump tried to break the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. As with some of his business ventures, he was not wholly successful.
“They’re trapped at the dinner,” the president boomed at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., celebrating his first 100 days in office. “Which will be very, very boring.”
Instead, it was just fine. It happened. There’s an inertia to these Washington traditions, and a determination to soldier on in the face of — whatever it is we’re facing. Everyone survived this weekend without the president, or without the crush of Hollywood celebrities who for years had been decorating the dinner in ever-increasing density, until now.
It was a bit like an off-year high school reunion: diminished numbers and fewer crazy stories but still no shortage of hors d’oeuvres and dancing and gossip. Everyone settled for sightings of Michael Steele and Debbie Dingell instead of Jon Hamm or a Kardashian. In past years, virtually the entire cast of “Modern Family” would come to the dinner; this year, United Talent Agency only secured the kid who plays Luke.
Well, now we can all sleep easy in our beds. Despite the president of the United States refusing to perform the traditional routine of being self-deprecating and massaging the egos of the people supposed to hold him to account, the Washington press corps somehow managed to rescue the evening and enjoy themselves. Despite being deprived of the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty, the assembled journalists and media executives still managed to mingle, network and slap each other on the backs for a job well done serving the interests of American democracy.
Aren’t you relieved? I know that I am.
Was it only a year ago that Barack Obama dropped the mic, literally, at his final correspondents’ dinner, as if to put an exclamation point on eight years of media savvy and pop-culture propaganda? He knew his role in this circus. It was Obama’s yearly chance to inspire a meme, rib a rival, come off as folksy royalty, remind the public that the media was not the enemy. His cool factor iced out the haters, smudged away red lines, papered over unkept promises. Afterward, the French ambassador’s mansion would swell with swells — both conservatives and liberals, all buddy-buddy in private, united by the daytime charade they pulled off together on TV.
As yes, good old Obama knew his place, knew his role in the “circus” – to dance like a performing seal in an attempt to make the self-satisfied hacks chuckle. Sure, Obama was more successful than most – thanks to a largely uninquisitive media he managed to maintain the “cool factor” right to the end of his presidency – but he stayed firmly within the tramlines of what was expected of him.
And what was that role? What has it traditionally been for administration after administration? Nothing more than making the media class look noble for one evening a year when they spend the other 364 making themselves look tawdry and partisan. Fudging important ideological questions and reducing them to laughing points. Papering over “unkept promises” as the trivialities that they are to the Washington political class – little frauds perpetrated on the American voters, some of whom are naive enough to expect political promises to be kept.
But the Washington Post is certainly in no mood to dwell on the accumulated failure of prestige American news outlets to hold leaders to account or properly represent the range of interests and opinion in the country. After all, the Post are enjoying a bumper season of increased subscriptions and web traffic thanks to the Trump presidency, drunk not on $25 cocktails but on their own sense of nobility (as evidenced by their hilariously overwrought “Democracy Dies In Darkness” motto).
Indeed, the Washington Post seems most anxious for us to know that this year’s event was a dud because Trump might have attended, not because he ultimately chose not to do so:
The guest list suffered not because Trump sent his regrets but, more likely, because of the chance he might attend; he remains dauntingly unpopular with the New York and Hollywood A-list that he had long aspired to join. The pre-dinner receptions, hosted by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, were staid and perfunctory, absent the usual angling for a sighting of a “Game of Thrones” star.
Apparently at no point has it occurred to the Post or other such outlets whether the presence of Hollywood celebrities at a political media event might actually be a bad thing rather than something to be celebrated and missed in its absence. It is merely taken for granted that the presence of numerous multimillionaires from the entertainment industry is some kind of sign that the health of American political journalism and culture is in fine fettle.
The focus of the stripped-down event was on defending free speech and celebrating the importance of a free press guaranteed under the First Amendment, something which we can certainly all applaud but which rarely merited such prime-time coverage when the Obama industry was, say, prosecuting whistleblowers with uncommon zeal. Has Trump made numerous troubling statements with regard to freedom of the press, libel laws and freedom of speech and association in general? Absolutely. But it is telling that much of the media is happy to trumpet the issue now, when it costs them little reputationally or financially, but maintained a pained silence under a more popular “liberal” president.
The dinner itself featured a dutiful pep talk by Watergate legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said from the dais, and the media elite applauded.
“CNN and MSNBC are fake news,” Trump said in Pennsylvania, and some of the 97 percent who say they’d still vote for him applauded.
Two worlds, talking past each other, from 100 miles apart. The latest prime-time iteration of POTUS vs. Beltway.
Only it isn’t just POTUS vs Beltway. It is half of America versus the Beltway news outlets and punditocracy. The cosseted Washington media class is so busy being angry at Donald Trump for his bombastic insults and threats that they remain largely unable to look beyond the president to see the many Americans who may not agree with Trump but who share his hatred of the people who filter and report the news.
As this blog has previously discussed, the mainstream American news media is indeed not “fake news” inasmuch as the likes of CNN or the New York Times do not routinely print sensationalist and patently false accounts of fabricated events designed to excite partisan zealots. But they have other far more insidious and effective methods of shaping the narrative through their editorial stances and very deliberate use of language.
As I wrote last year:
Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.
When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.
But there they all sat, facing a stage emblazoned with the words “Celebrating the First Amendment” and no doubt feeling inordinately pleased with themselves for the stellar work they believe they are doing in standing up to the Trumpian dystopia, unaware or more likely just unconcerned by just how hated and distrusted they are throughout vast swathes of their own country.
The New York Times had an interesting feature article today looking at the upcoming final round of the French presidential election between centrist empty-suit Emmanuel “status quo” Macron and depressing protectionism advocate Marine Le Pen. The piece focuses on the struggling northern town of Calais, a place I know quite well through many visits during my adolescence, and is actually quite fair in its examination of the erosion of the town’s biggest industry in the face of global competition and the lack of political answers
For a piece of New York Times journalism, it is pretty good – especially compared to their godawful “Will London Fall?” hitpiece on Britain and their generally hysterical and uncomprehending coverage of Brexit.
The only problem? The New York Times has to send reporters on expeditions into towns like Calais in order to talk to the locals and get to know their concerns, just as American reporters descended with newfound intensity on Trumpland after the US presidential election trying to figure out what went wrong, and just as shellshocked London political journalists stumbled shellshocked beyond the great metropolis in a bid to understand what Middle England was thinking.
The New York Times article’s author, Liz Alderman, is naturally based at the newspaper’s Paris bureau. Unless she makes a conscious effort, nearly every human interaction she makes will be likely with somebody who intends to vote for Macron in the second round. This is not to impugn Alderman’s work or journalistic ethics – the Calais piece proves that she does seek out contrary opinions in the unloved regions of France when required. But when the majority of your professional and social life is spent among people who hold one set of values, the occasional field trip to the other side of the tracks cannot make up for deep-rooted understanding of – and empathy with – the more pro-globalism, pro-EU, pro-market side.
And so it is in Washington D.C. The people who gather each year for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and then grumble about how they no longer get to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars thanks to the big bully in the White House) may make the occasional foray into Trumpland if the needs of a story require it. But the vast, vast majority do not live the lives of Trump supporters, nor live among them, nor count such people among their friends or family. And you simply cannot report fairly, accurately or honestly about people whom you have to interview to get any kind of sense of who they are or what their hopes, dreams and fears may be.
The White House Correspondents’ Association clearly does not care. They have calculated that they can prosper just fine by continuing to swagger around like noble seekers of truth, bellowing about free speech and holding President Trump to “account” (while furiously ignoring just how much their lust for TV ratings and pageviews fuelled his rise in the first place). But should one of the tuxedoed dinner attendees ever stop to wonder how Donald Trump is able to effortlessly turn a crowd of people against the media at a campaign rally, this is the reason.
Trump’s non-attendance was the perfect excuse to cancel a sleazy and tawdry annual event which should have been axed many years ago, if only the bipartisan ruling class had any self-awareness or a care for how they appeared to the rest of the country.
But even now they party on, while America burns.
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