On the deep grammar of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner

"The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real."

25 Apr 2015 6:40 pm 59 Comments

Have you ever come to know members of a family who collaborate in staying silent about something bad that happened in the past, something no one wants to talk about because to talk about it would probably tear the family apart?

The innocent would have to accuse the guilty. The guilty to defend themselves would find a way to spread responsibility around— or just lie about what happened. Which would then enrage people who were there because it rewrites history and erases their experience. If you have ever come to know such a family — or been part of one, as I have — then you know how participants in the conspiracy share a signaling system that can instantly warn an incautious member: you are three, four hops away from violating the pact of silence… if you don’t want to bring the whole structure down, then I suggest you change the subject… or switch to one of the harmless work-arounds we have provided for the purpose of never getting too close to the source of our dread.

None of that has to be said, of course. It’s all done by antennae. The result is that serious talk about certain subjects is off limits. Key routes into that subject are closed off, because the signaling system activates itself three or four rings out from dread center. To an outsider this manifests itself as an inexplicable weirdness or empty quality, difficult to name. To insiders it becomes: this is who we are… the people who route around—

I mention this because I think it helps in interpreting a bizarre event that unfolds tonight in Washington and on many a media platform: the White House Correspondents Association dinner. How bizarre? Well, look at the evidence of compulsion:


It’s not like they don’t realize it. This is from Politico, house organ for the insider class in DC.

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway— now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America)

“Everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway.” True! And yet they keep doing it. Why?

I’m sure you have your ideas. Here is mine. I know it will sound crazy (and provide a few chuckles) to those in the room tonight at the Washington Hilton, but I don’t care because the event is itself one gigantic neurotic symptom that begs for some interpretation.

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.

Now add to that very specific failure a larger lesson that is also too painful to face: in Washington access journalism has been a bust. It doesn’t work. Its practices made possible the spectacular fall down in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Under Obama it’s been so thin that Politico is this week asking: is the White House press corps becoming obsolete?) After a maximal failure like 2002-04 there needed to be a critical reckoning with the whole idea of “access to inside sources as reliable route to scoops.” You can’t maintain that idea and think of yourself as a watchdog, an adversarial force. Not with what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But what if you still want both? Your scoop system, and your self-image as a watchdog. Your insider status, and the critical distance that with the right story could make you a hero of the republic. What if you want your parties with the powerful, and your check on power. What if you have to choose between these alternatives, but you can’t choose because the family has no history of making difficult choices like that. In circumstances like this, you are going to pick denial. And here we find a subterranean route into the Washington Hilton tonight.

3518728500_8159e78919_zThe Washington press corps needed the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through these glaringly obvious conflicts. Instead they just moved on. No one made that decision consciously. But it happened. Access journalism did not have to answer for its sins. Judith Miller did. That’s the simplest way I can put it. And because that event — which was a massive, wrenching and psychological event — did happen the access orgy that is called the White House Correspondents Association dinner can today go on.

There is access to the dinner itself. There is access to the parties that surround the dinner. There is access to the celebrities and power players who show up at the dinner. But access is the god that failed, with terrible consequences that no one in Washington journalism can reckon with. Instead, they party the pain away. And that is one thing tonight is “about.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 12.38.00 PM
That tweet was deleted.

(Photo: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at the WHCA dinner, 2009. Creative Commons license.)

59 Comments

flounder says:

And that explains why there was such an immediate and angry reaction to Steven Colbert’s routine when he was accidentally invited to be the entertainment. He had the nerve to blow through the rings of silence.

To celebrate the big event tonight I might track down and read some of the early reviews of his work from the Cilizza’s and whatnot. Here’s a good starter:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/03/AR2006050302202.html

Really you had to go back to 2003 2004. You are part of the problem giving Obama and Hillary a pass in your reporting. It would be nice if we had reporters who really did their job instead of looking the other way.

This. This X 10,000.

#TRUTH…missing accuracy in reporting for a decade or so.

You mean Judith Miller, employed by Fox News, with a new book out? No, she never really answered for her Iraq reporting at all.

Jailtime for doing her job and doing it well wasn’t enough? I guess you just didn’t like the facts she reported.

Yes, Miller’s work became questionable as soon as she took up with those horrible Foxies. Shame on her.

Why was it she went to jail again. Oh yes, she refused to give information about her (no doubt) unreliable sources.

So don’t go there, Ben. She won’t be beheaded for her apostasy, only maligned.

How does an Emmy Winning, Pulitizer prize winner Attorney who now works @ Thinktank Council of Foreign relations get slammed for contributing on Fox? #CONFUSED

Mayson Lancaster says:

And of course, the press corps’s guilt about causing the election of Bush by badmouthing Gore and airbrushing Bush.

So the real problem isn’t that you and your “fellow travelers” haven’t spoken “Truth to Power” for a long time, it’s that dumb old Bush convinced you to let him start a War?

How pathetic! The truth is that the “Press” love the rush of being close to the rich and powerful, and so they NEVER call politicians out of the LIES and CORRUPTION because you guys are afraid you won’t get invited to the next big party, or you won’t get called on at the next press briefing.

YOU have allowed America to descend from a Republic to an Oligarchy. The reason the “Press” is irrelevant is because you DON’T DO YOUR REAL JOB, just like all the “Representatives” who fall in love with the money and the power.

It’s disgusting. You’re so worried about being in the “IN” crowd and/or on the “winning” team, you’ve pretty much all forgotten that you’re there to pursue the TRUTH.

Have fun blaming Bush for that.

The post doesn’t “blame Bush.” I’m sorry, but that is just a misread. So is this:

The post calls out the culture of the press and Washington journalists who maintain that culture for being unwilling to look at a painful failure and truly question “access journalism” after its spectacular collapse left no doubt that it was a broken system.

Native Washingtonian here – lived in & out Beltway all my life. Been to the correspondents dinner – kinda agree here.
#MESS

Stephen you seem to fundamentally misread Rosen’s piece. Yes he points to the run-up to war in the Bush years as a triggering moment, but that it was exactly the failure of so many journalists to speak truth to power at the time that was the problem.

I think Rosen very clearly decries the whole “in” crowd thing, in fact that seems central to his thesis.

But you saw “Bush” and blacked out on all the substantive arguments Rosen makes. Please take a few breaths and re-read for the core arguments. It might be enlightening.

Epperton says:

Well, OK — so the Washington Press Corps is thoroughly dysfunctional, co-opted by the government, and worthless to the general citizenry. Who exactly needs them at all? Why constantly fret about their manifest failures and egos?

The Federal government already has a huge propaganda force on its direct payroll — no need to fuss much with pompous D.C. media stringers.

U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimated that the total number of Federal employees doing full time work that would be considered ‘public relations’ in the private sector exceeds 35,000; that’s equivalent to three U.S. Army Divisions. The Feds sure don’t need the Washington Press Corps, but have plenty of manpower to tame any of their timid meows.

The Washington Press Corps is just a minor symptom of a much greater core problem for Americans.

Let me put forth that the “terrible secret” is woefully apparent to anyone with a Physics PhD.

The press in this country don’t deserve whatever distinction comes with their name.

delia ruhe says:

Excellent piece, Jay Rosen. I began seeing the whoring of the press and the visual news media during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, when panty-sniffer Starr controlled the narrative with his cleverly timed leaks. He understood the press far better than the press understood itself.

Others will go back even further, to the OJ trial.

#TRUTH

Jay, yes, I married into a family in which the patriarch was known by most to have raped his five children. On holidays, picnics, birthday parties & etc everyone just proceeded as if everything was normal, treating the man like any Dad and Grandpa.

Some topic close to the issue would occasionally arise, and an uncomfortable silence would descend. Then we’d all nervously move right along.

So yes, I know the dynamic. But do you really think these Establishment journos carry that kind of nervous worry; that it’s really that hard to keep The Topic out their individual and collective minds?

What’s the evidence that any of them really care, or doubt in the least that they are actually very fine journalists?

Raymond Bonner: “It’s easy to disparage Miller. Too easy. Censure her and we can sidestep looking at our own reporting, at broader disquieting questions about journalism since 9/11. As journalists, we all let our guard down in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. We abandoned some of the most important journalistic principles—speak truth to power; hold governments accountable; display healthy skepticism—at the base of the American flagpole.”

Raymond Bonner is a former foreign correspondent and investigative reporter at The New York Times.

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/what-journalists-got-wrong-after-911-117203.html#ixzz3YRoxZsAP

When I worked for a major university, we wanted to start a Friends of the Library group. I made an appt. to see a columnist / reporter for the major newspaper in our city to ask if she would consider being founding chair because she was a university alumnae. She refused because she said she needed the freedom to write about something that might happen that would show library in a bad light and if she were chair of the group might feel conflict. We’ve come a long way baby and not in a good way.

Jay, isn’t the secret in the closet that you cite but one of a number that demonstrate a media that has been neutered compared to it’s role in exposing Nixon, that it is now at the heel of Government and Wall St. The list of “epic failures” today would include;

– Drone strike program allowing Executive killing without oversight
– Capture of politics by wealth
– Enslavement of increasing numbers through poverty minimum wages
– Police murder of Black people with impunity
– Climate decline
– True causes of obesity.

Your example is jut the tip of the iceberg – Corporate media is structurally not capable of making sense of this, indeed is incentivised NOT to. This void must be filled by Social web media that increasingly allows direct citizen to citizen linking without being “mediated” at all. Of course the risk is that the key platforms themselves are Corporate.

In New Zealand we have just had an interesting case of the Prime Minister being uncovered for abusing a waitress over several months by stalking her at a cafe near where he lives and pulling her hair on multiple occasions. Most of the Corporate media have accepted his line that it was all a “bit of fun”, indeed some media have blamed her for politicizing the activity because she exposed it via a left-wing blog, that she is being selfish! Here is a link to the most unbelievable piece from a leading 7pm post news analysis show. You could not make this stuff up.

http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/mike-s-view-waitress-selfishness-in-outing-key-makes-cafe-owners-big-losers-video-6299059

Actually, for fun I should also direct you to a parody (of the presenter I referenced above) that is on a morning radio show which has become the only satire left in NZ media:

https://soundcloud.com/radiohauraki/jeremy-wells-like-mike-hosking-rant-april-24-2015

qcexaminer says:

If you like your plan you can keep it. Period.

Check out the bipartisan hate for this CNN’er in the replies to his Twitter post.

Click the date at the bottom left.

Derek Caney says:

A colleague I admire — a Beltway beat reporter for well respected international news agency — had this reaction to your piece:

“By this logic you’re not supposed to take a source out to lunch either. I had a fun weekend that is going to improve my reporting.”

Thoughts?

You asked for my thoughts. What your colleague said is not a reply to the post I wrote, which argues that if the press has done the hard work of examining the spectacular failure of access journalism in the run-up to the Iraq war, then it could perhaps have by now a healthier relationship with official Washington. But it did not do that hard work. And so the relationship is neurotic and even crazy-making at times. Thus, Howard Fineman: “We all hate it; it’s [the] antithesis of journalism; but everyone goes to every party they can.” That’s what I mean by neurotic.

Your colleague decided to reply to someone else’s post, which simply states: you’re cozying up to your sources! you’re getting in bed with the people you’re supposed to cover! Your colleague knew how to reply to that post, so that is what he or she did.

By the way, I don’t have any problem with reporters buying sources lunch and having off the record conversations with them, and it does not follow from anything I said in this post that such would be verboten. The White House Correspondents dinner is a public ritual, broadcast on C-SPAN, with a red carpet walk for celebrities. Criticism of it does not imply anything about some reporter’s lunch with a valuable source.

Wondering says:

Have there been comparable past cases of reportorial failure, and did any of them elicit the kind of review called for here? If not, why?, what’s the lesson or observation? If any.

JWalters says:

Sounds like a vague and possibly trivial incident with which to flippantly justify the existence of massive dysfunction and corruption.

JWalters says:

Very glad to see an article on this topic. If Obama were to express his true feelings about numerous topics, as he did “jokingly” about climate change at the dinner last night, then all the correspondents in that room would descend on him like a cloud of locusts, as their oligarchy paymasters would require them to do, assassinating his motives and character. These correspondents and their editors and publishers could, and should, absolutely destroy the Republican denial of science. It is bad faith, deceitful, subverting government by the people, and ultimately criminal. But they don’t. It’s like everybody in that room was mind controlled, laughing in their suits and jewels while American democracy burns to the ground.

9/11 does seem like a ramp-up point, but it grew out of a history, described in “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror” at
http://warprofiteerstory.blogspot.com

In addition to bribes and “profit sharing”, blackmail and murder are also used to control politicians, described by Kay Griggs, ex-wife of a U.S. Army director of assassination training. A brief summary of her main points is at
https://consortiumnews.com/2015/04/06/the-iran-deals-big-upside/#comment-192893

The U.S. media and government have been captured by big war profiteering banks and their corporate cronies. The New York Times’ dishonest coverage of Israel and Palestine has been documented many times at Mondoweiss, a Jewish-run website. For example,
http://mondoweiss.net/2015/04/faceless-voiceless-coverage

There are scores of experts who could speak intelligently and knowledgeably about these issues, AND who do not knuckle under to the pressures to obfuscate and lie. For example, “Shutting Down Debate About Israel”, is a recent article at Consortium News, a truly professional AND independent news source.
https://consortiumnews.com/2015/04/26/shutting-down-debate-about-israel/

But these people are thoroughly banned from the mainstream press. And the correspondents at the dinner never report on that. They don’t want to get banished.

Obama’s predicament was foreseen back in 2010 at
http://whowhatwhy.com/2010/03/10/what-obama-is-up-against/

qcexaminer says:

The Obama As Victim thing is just so precious.

Richard Aubrey says:

With the exception of WMD–one of more than a dozen reasons given for going into Iraq–pretty much everything the admin said was vetted.
Of course, pretending certain misrepresentations were what the admin actually said poisons the well.
And then there was the issue of “imminent”.
But I think Jay is wrong for the reason that these guys aren’t capable of shame in the first place, nor do they care what anybody thinks of them.
I mean, these are the folks who paid Richard Jewell a big chunk, lied about Bush’s TANG records, got busted editing Zimmerman’s 311 tapes, got busted editing the comments of a Zimmerman juror, faked up the “hands up” meme until it became both irrefutably true and obviously false at the same time. Missed John Edwards’ frolics on campaign money. Lied most promiscuously about Sarah Palin.
Spiked the Lewinski story until it got loose on its own.
So, if it’s shame, they have a lot of material.
But not the Iraq war.

Thank you Richard. Well Said.

Jay wanted to write about press disfunction, but couldn’t stop himself from exhibiting Bush Derangement Syndrome.
His intention in the post is to write about the failure of the press, [paragraphs 1-7] up to Why?
Then his BDS emotions, which he denies having, make him choose [9] the “event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002” and to oppose the Bush forces.

Fact: Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1971, was thrown back in a loss, but not overthrown based on conditions he promised to fulfill. From then, there had been 16 different UN Security Council resolutions condemning various Saddam actions or failures to act, including NOT documenting the destruction of WMD equipment, as required.
My opinion: Any one of those violations is enough for a non-phoney case for war.
Jay has a different opinion, but dishonestly claims that his opinion is a fact.

And that, really, is the Politically Correct sickness inside of journalism, which Jay exhibits here in spades, the unwillingness to separate facts from opinion.

I also disagree about “the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory”.
I remember when the Democrats decided in early 1975 to stop funding the corrupt S. Viet anti-communist gov’t after Nixon’s US Army had won the war in Vietnam. The end of funding our S. Viet ally meant the lying N. Viet commies could, and did, attack and beat the South, allowing the Khmer Rouge to murder 2 million Cambodians; the commie results which the US had been fighting against since the lying Dem LBJ had pushed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
I remain ashamed for my country for allowing 2,000,000 civilians to be murdered, without Walter Cronkites’ or other big press objections, or even much factual reporting.
The choice of the Dems in 1975, and the press lies and silence about the result of that choice, are objectively a far greater failure. But of course, by deliberate Dem silence, maybe no long “in memory”.

Similarly, it was Obama and Dems who left Iraq in 2011, again losing the peace after the US won the “war” — and it is this Dem failure that Jay wants us all to mis-remember as a Bush phoney cause of war problem.

I got sick of Jay’s BDS 9 years ago — sad he’s still obsessed as well as being in denial about it. The new relevant facts since then are the Bush surge victory, and the Obama running away loss.
(Fact: Obama declared Iraq as an Obama victory.)

Yet Jay is absolutely right that journalism is sick. Hope he looks more closely at the real facts which the press fails to note sufficiently.

Arie Korving says:

This is BS on stilts. Yes, the press is despised by most of the rest of the country, not because of the Iraq War but because it’s become part of the Ruling Class and unofficial arm of the Democrat party. Blaming Bush is now the hallmark of the press’ Tourette’s syndrome; the equivalent of Godwin’s Law regarding Nazi references.

I was there in the run-up to Iraq, when the UN inspectors were not finding WMDs and got plenty of press, while the CIA stating that they were there, a “slam dunk.” In the aftermath of 9/11 both sides of the aisle were public on the “fact” that Saddam had WMDs and that the US could not allow them to fall into the hands of terrorists.

When the Democrats changed their minds, so did the press; but I repeat myself. There are lots of reasons why the press is hated, but stopping the Iraq war isn’t one of them. As Glenn Reynolds notes: “Thronesniffers gotta throne-sniff.” Oh, and another reason: political operatives moving smoothly into the press, defending their previous employers a la George Stephanopoulos. Can you say “incestuous relationship?” I know you could.

I’m expecting a lot of this because of this.

http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/205799/

My quick replies (I am in the classroom all day, so can’t be more detailed.)

The post does not “blame Bush.” That’s just misreading it.

The post is not trying to explain why the DC press is despised by most of the country, and it does not propose the Iraq War as the explanation for that, although it certainly is a factor for some.

I wrote a whole post about the complex question of why trust in the news media is declining:

http://pressthink.org/2012/04/rosens-trust-puzzler-what-explains-falling-confidence-in-the-press/

The post is trying to explain why the Washington press corps continues with a ritual that is doing it and the country no good. Thanks.

Arie Korving says:

Jay, perhaps it may help you to read what you wrote: “The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11.”

THE EVENT AT THE CENTER OF THIS NEUROTIC SYSTEM ….

This, according to you is the dirty secret that the “family” is trying to hide.

Jay, my friend, and you are my friend, if you really think that this is the guilty secret of the White House press corps you need help. And if the rest of the press agrees with you, I’m sure you can get a group rate.

Richard Aubrey says:

Jay,
I get it. But I think you’re wrong. That bunch has no shame.
Insty’s right about thronesniffers.
In the non-barking dog folder is the foiled attack in Amman in 2004. Several trucks with tons of explosive and poison gas would have, USA Today reported somebody estimating, killed 20,000 people.
I expect the Jordanian cops know where the stuff came from, but I’ve not been able to find anybody asking. Maybe there’s a fear the stuff would have Saddaam’s chop all over it and some Bekkaa Valley dust in the cracks.
So, no, the boys and girls aren’t ashamed of that.
If they had been ashamed of it, the feeling would have been temporary. Joe Biden said, in 2010, that a liberal, prosperous, self-reliant, democratic Iraq would be one of the Obama administration’s signature achievements. So it’s all good, right?

You “get” nothing. Nothing that I am trying to say. And you will not be permitted to take over this thread, as you regularly try to do.

Andy Umbo says:

Sorry people, I used to live in DC, and many of my friends lived in DC (and still do) and work for the media. This was always a “slightly smelly” event. One of my buddies who was a freelance video/cinematographer in DC, and an avowed socialist, maybe even communist, went to many and got his picture take with Ronnie R. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have stepped in the place to “make nice” with the group of people I have to professionally cover.

There are people that for some reason think politicians are like American royalty (I’m talking about you Cokie), instead of very fallible individuals on the make for money and power, swaddled in respectability of what the office used to be maybe 80 years ago. If any of these so called news correspondents actually gave a politician the same amount of grief I hear the BBC correspondents giving them, I might respect them more. But sorry, this is a foolish event…

The correspondents might as well go to the dinner, all they do is report everyone’s PR release instead of getting to the truth. You remember the truth, right…?

Temporary says:

To quote Mr. Rosen above:

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.

The “event at the center of this neurotic system” was not fighting against George Bush II hard enough; and you want to say it’s not “Blame Bush”…

Might I suggest an alternate “terrible secret”: when the media decided to be propagandists, not journalists. The difference shows…

“The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003.”

The failure being spoken of there is a failure by journalists to do the job they themselves describe as their most important job: to serve as a check on power, especially at a moment when a democratic nation has to make the most difficult and consequential decision it can make: whether to go to war.

To summarize that as “blaming Bush” is just stupid, or an intentional misread for purposes of striking an attitude.

What that passage does do, however, is describe Bush’s government as the author and presenter of a faulty case for war. This it most certainly was. That happened. That I am pointing it out is the real problem several posters have with that passage. They do not accept that the Bush government was the author and presenter of a faulty case for war.

The strange way they have chosen to express themselves on that is: “Rosen, you’re blaming Bush for the pathetic spectacle of the White House Correspondents dinner. How pathetic you are.”

This is the third time I have reacted to this misread. That is quite enough. We hear you. You “think” this post blames Bush. It doesn’t but you are intent on saying that it does. Again, we hear you.

All future iterations of this point will be deleted. Thanks.

Tim Schmoyer says: