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Correspond Ends

May 2, 2010

So, did you hear the one about the White House Correspondents Association Dinner last night?  About how Obama killed even though the mainstream media had already declared itself dead?

Obama’s best jokes included:

Ed is right, I work a lot. And so I wasn’t sure that I should actually come tonight. Biden talked me into it.  He leaned over and he said, “Mr. President, this is no ordinary dinner.  This is a big (beep) meal.”

It’s been quite a year since I’ve spoken here last — lots of ups, lots of downs — except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down.  But that’s politics. It doesn’t bother me. Beside I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.

Though I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine last year is here tonight — great to see you, Jay.  I’m also glad that I’m speaking first, because we’ve all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno’s.

Unfortunately, John McCain couldn’t make it. Recently he claimed that he had never identified himself as a maverick. And we all know what happens in Arizona when you don’t have ID.   Adios, amigos.

Look, I feel for John. You know, we were on the road together and obviously had a hard-fought battle, and you learn, certainly at the national level, politics isn’t easy. This year I’ve experienced my share of disappointments. For example, I had my heart set on the Nobel Prize — for Physics.  But, hey, you can’t win ’em all.

The dinner is certainly one of the biggest annual opportunities to take a hard look at the press, its relationships with government, and whether or not both sides of the equation are operating as they should in a democracy such as ours.  Obama made it a point to seriously and earnestly discuss the future of journalism and its central importance in ensuring both transparency and participation in government.  In short, he pandered to the press corps by reminding them how wonderfully well they were all doing their jobs in the face of a scary, brave new world of media.  Though of course there are always some individuals who deserve plaudits and pats on the back for their stories and articles, if you look at the press corps’ track record, you’ll see that the press corps, as a whole, has nothing to celebrate.  The two biggest stories of the entire decade were totally botched by the mainstream media: the systematic lies and abuses of power that fabricated a $3 trillion war in Iraq and the financial meltdown.  Why did these huge stories with libraries of information to be obtained get such poor and deliberately manipulated coverage?  It’s the media’s cozy relationship with government, stupid.

When you look at how the Bush Administration played dangerously fast-and-loose with its sources and reporters lying about the existence of WMD in Iraq, how eagerly the press snapped up pictures of GWB in the flight suit and “Mission Accomplished™” banner (the seventh anniversary of which happens to fall on the same day as this year’s correspondents’ dinner), how fundamental and risky changes in the financial regulatory structure implicating the entire economy went misunderstood and under-emphasized, it becomes clear that the media has become just that: media for other people to speak.  The White House Correspondents Association might as well just be called the White House Conduits Association.  In that light, it makes sense that Obama would be giving the media strokes for simply relaying the talking points and messages that radiate from a well-orchestrated executive.  They’re buddies, not enemies!

The blow-dried crème de la crème of our vapid infotainment universe gather in an exclusive hotel banquet room, put aside their roles as “journalists,” and party down with members of the Beltway power structure who are not only the “sources” for their “exclusive stories,” but also for their status and personal fortunes. For one day each year they really show their gratitude.

In good times and in bad, this lavish annual schmooze-fest brings together Beltway pundits, talking heads, news anchors, and TV hosts for a night of drinking, “dancing,” laughing, yucking it up, and generally carrying on like the powerful millionaires’ club that it is.

When the mainstream media outlets have had their budgets slashed and their legs hamstrung as a result of being subjected to the profit-driven pressures that they had basically been immune to for decades (call it patronage if you wish), reporters don’t bother patiently fact-checking, verifying claims, or attaining wide-angled perspective.  They run with the most shocking and instantly eyeball-grabbing stories they can churn out.  When Americans believe that sheer airtime is tantamount to legitimacy (“hey, there are two people with opposite opinions on TV, but I happen to not like the implications of what the guy with glasses is saying, so I’m going to go with the other guy’s more palatable, less responsibility-inducing outlook”), truth is a commodity that can be bought and sold if the politicians are savvy enough to feed those news outlets those ratings-grabbing stories.  Of course the media has become enmeshed and intertwined with government: both seek the same audiences.  Politics seek media, media seeks celebrity, and so politics seek to make itself and its issues easily digestible celebrity sludge.  The fact that policy used to be the product and media tittering the byproduct, rather than the other way around, is a testament to the rise of the media as a coequal partner with the politicians in terms of defining the American polity.

So, it seems that while he was killing, Obama didn’t have the heart or stomach to explain to the non-insiders that journalism’s life was in his hands.


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