Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Who's Killing the Press? The 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner

Occupy Portland Launch Rally
October 6, 2011
© A. F. Litt 2011, All Rights Reserved

Time to start posting again...  Probably not too often, but I feel like my long hiatus on this blog is somewhat coming to an end...

An interesting White House Correspondents Dinner this year, reflecting the current state of the American press corps.  Here is an incomplete rundown of my takeaways:

First, the President not attending this year's event, to me, makes this one not to overlook, but one to pay closer attention to. The whys of this idea are complex and would take a whole essay to explain in detail.  Not that speakers have pulled punches with the President in the room in the past, but that is a small piece of it.  However, without the distraction of the President being present, it felt like this year's event was a bit more self-reflexive, a bit more introspective, focusing a little more on the successes and failures of the press itself over recent past.

The other day, on CNN, a talking head was saying that President Trump, through the campaign, the transition, and the first 100 days, did more damage to the press than anyone or anything else in modern history.

This is just simply not true.

The damage has come from the 24 hour networks trying to maintain ratings through the endless, Sisyphusian loops of the modern 24 hour news cycle.  It comes from the blending of news reporting and infotainment that is confusing to many viewers.  It has come from the decline of print journalism and a whole segment of the press that is understaffed and panicked by their own quest for survival...

Back in the day of the newspaper, we had separate sections for news and opinion and clear editorial rules for how to write and present those very different articles.  However, these days, on the news networks, on the internet, the line is blurred, and in the case of shows like Fox and Friends, the line is almost entirely eliminated.

So, instead of the viewer being presented with news and, perhaps, some unbiased analysis, they are presented only with the facts that present the host's views, and then are spoon fed what these facts "mean" through the narrow lens of the host's political agenda.

This doesn't mean that we should ignore the facts, but we need to be very careful about and aware of who is presenting these facts to us when watching, or reading, anything.  We need to be sure that we are getting all the facts, and we need to make up our own minds and not fall into an intellectually lazy zone where we let the writer, the presenter, or the talking heads (more on that next), tell us what we should feel about them.

We need to make our own interpretations.  We need to make up our own minds and make our own decisions.

And perhaps even worse than those blurred lines between news and opinion reporting are those talking heads inevitably brought in to tell us what the facts are supposed to mean.

In the not too distant past, the standard format on most television news broadcasts was to present the story, just the facts, and then to bring in a subject matter expert to add context and analysis to the story just presented.  This expert would not be representing a political viewpoint, but in depth knowledge and experience on the issue being discussed.

However, what we see these days, hitting its low point with CNN's coverage of the 2016 election, is bringing in a paid right wing pundit and a paid left wing pundit to argue the politics and views of their side in response to the facts.  This is done in the name of being "fair," but it is not.

Some stories are good and bad, some stories are pretty clear cut.  If Senator Jim Jim is caught robbing from old ladies and killing their kittens, we do not need a talking head from the other party arguing that he was justified in his actions or that the actions, in the light of clear evidence to the contrary,  never even actually happened and are, instead, falsely, just a creation of biased media.

Such tactics are not representative of a "fair and balanced" approach to reporting (sure, a Fox slogan, but one I am applying to everyone), but instead these tactics are actually unbalancing the true weight of the facts themselves.

Instead of news, what we get are arguments.  Crossfire, years back on CNN, was a pioneer of this format and could be entertaining and even, slightly, informative in a one hour a day dose.  Sure, let's hear what both sides have to say on the issues of the day.  Why not?  But not all the time on all of everything.  There is a time and place for that, and always, every time, through most of the hours of the day, is not that time or place.

So, instead of spending time with a subject matter expert who can help to explain what the possible legal ramification of Senator Jim Jim's actions are, what the fallout politically for the parties are, we hear biased spin doctors on the left and right trying to tilt Jim Jim's horrific actions to their side's own political benefit.

No new insight is gained.  Our time is wasted.  Or we become numb, and our own biases (we all have them) let the spin seep in and we adopt, knowingly or unknowingly, even with some resistance, the stance of the spin doctor we sympathize with the most.  Our views on the issue are being manipulated and defined by our political camaraderie with the talking head who speaks the most towards our own political biases...

These sins, two out of many, are the reason for the crisis in American journalism these days.

President Trump did not create this, he did not strike the first blow, he is merely capitalizing on the media's self inflicted wounds.  Wounds they've been inflicting on themselves for a long time, well before the President ever jumped into the Birther debate, let alone before he announced his candidacy for President...

The press itself has opened up the gaps in trust that the President is charging through.  They let the roof get leaky, and then too many underneath started blaming the rain for making them wet.

At this year's dinner, Hasan Minhaj called the media out on many of these issues.  There were many uncomfortable chuckles, too polite applause points, and awkward silences as he spoke.  He did not eviscerate them, but rather put a calm and loving hand on their shoulder and said, "Really, you know this isn't all good; you can do better."

He called them out in a fairly soft, but still firm, manner and asked them to rise up, to fix the leaky roof, to take responsibility for the health of their own industry, and to help the rest of America to navigate and survive the reality of the President Trump Administration.

While Minhaj was both sharp and entertaining, the speeches by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that preceded Minhaj were intriguing, fascinating, and chillingly relevant considering the heavy duty scandals already looming over this embryonic administration. Check out the link to the full event at the bottom of this post to view what these two titans had to share with the crowd this year.

To be fair, I've seen change since Inauguration Day.  I've seen a certain sense of sobering in the press and media.  The Trump Presidency is not a result of the failure of the media, far from it, there are many factors that led to his Electoral College victory.  Yet, the press' failings did play a role here, creating an environment where Candidate Trump's weaknesses became strengths and muddying the waters enough to make it just that more difficult for voters to make a well informed choice with their ballots.  I believe that this has led to some self examination that is creating a sense of greater responsibility to their consumers.

The role of the press is not about sales or clicks or ratings, it is about being the Fourth Estate, the final check in our government's system of checks and balances, and the press is our safety valve when the three branches of our government fail to hold each other to account.  Watergate is, of course, the obvious example, but this role has been acknowledged by everyone since the writing of our Constitution, and this role is established and verified by that very document.

The first 100 days of this presidency have brought the traditional print and broadcast news organizations to a stark junction where they find their own legitimacy, and even basic survival, in doubt and jeopardy.  There is a lot at stake for our nation right now.  Still, I am encouraged by the slow turn back towards traditional journalistic principles that this ship seems to be making.  I do see some slow change.  I think the last year has spooked them, and they are slowly, cautiously, trying to correct their course.  But is it enough?  And will this last?

They've seen the iceberg.  But is the course correction too little, too late, to avoid sinking the whole ship?

No President

To be fair, I fully understand why President Trump chose to be the first president since Nixon to completely shun the dinner...  This was a no win situation for him.

If the president made jokes, he'd be torn to shreds...  They'd sound too much like his bizarre tweets and statements over the last 100 days.  Where is the line between reality and satire?  How do you roast anyone or anything when your "serious" communications already sound like a stranger than true parody sketch on a late night comedy show?

But that is just the political consideration...  Ego was a factor, I am sure, as well.  This is not a guy who currently has a thick enough skin to sit through an evening like this at this point in his life.  Sure, he was the target of a Comedy Central roast late in his old career, on the cusp of his new career as a politician, but that was a different time in his life.  It was a time of letting go of what came before while not being invested deeply yet in the new life he has now.

To be honest, I have not seen the Comedy Central roast.  Maybe he didn't take it well?  I don't know.

But something seems to have happened since then, an internal change seems to have occurred, and he can no longer seem to accept any perceived challenges to his "winning," either from facts, commentary, or satire.

Sitting there looking uncomfortable, or even upset, all night would have been damaging.  His own speech at the end of the night, juxtaposed with those images, likely would have come across as too angry or too bitter, even if he was trying to be a good sport about everything.

The margin of political victory for him on this night would have been tiny and difficult to achieve.  The White House, politically, made a sensible choice in not taking the risk.

Not (the full) Truth!
Mrs. Clinton did accept the primary blame for her 2016 election loss in today's interview, while clearly pointing these factors out as elements that weighted the scales against her, especially, in a crippling way, during the final days of the campaign.  Whatever the truth is on the election, why she lost or why President Trump won, this is a misleading headline regarding her actual comments today.  She did infer that she would have won the election if it was held on October 27, 2016.


The Washington Post:

A different sort of White House correspondents’ dinner


The whole damn show (Starts with the Video mentioned in the Rolling Stone article below)

Rolling Stone:  

The Most Cringeworthy Moment From the White House Correspondents' Dinner