The WHCA dinner has gone Hollywood. Let's make it about the news.
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Major Garrett of CBS News is rising to the defense of the extravaganza that is the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner — and he is nearly convincing.
Garrett is a very good, no B.S. reporter who adeptly made the print-to-TV transition. He's an active member of the association, which now frets that President Trump won't show for its annual event and confronts the demise of some big related gatherings due to unhappiness with Trump.
In The Washington Post, he makes the case for the press going. Boycotting out of chagrin with Trump, he says, would underscore his claim that they're jerks.
"The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is not a mood ring. It doesn’t care if President Trump — or any president — likes, dislikes, celebrates, scorns or ignores White House reporters. ...It is an institution that celebrates one bedrock American value, the First Amendment, and two journalistic goals: to highlight excellent reporting and to award scholarships to the next generation of American journalists."
The piece lands in a world where journalists are wringing their hands over Trump's disdain of the press. It's a reason Vanity Fair will not co-host its traditional post-dinner party with Bloomberg and that The New Yorker won't host a pre-dinner bash. The New York Times won't be there, but they've got a long-standing aversion to the gathering.
"If Trump represents a genuine threat to press freedoms, then foregoing the dinner doesn’t change a thing," Garrett argues. "The right response, instead, is for reporters and news organizations to redouble their commitment to a WHCA dinner built around the journalism of the present and of the future."
But there are other realities that don't get full vetting.
The event needs a clean-up from the Army Corps of Engineers since its de facto hijacking by celebrity-dom. As event chroniclers always note, it started when Michael Kelly, a very good journalist then with The Baltimore Sun, spiced up a righteously drab affair by inviting the attractive Fawn Hall, secretary to Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The doors were now open to media playing "Can You Top This?!" We all sought celebrity guests, most of whom didn't have a clue about student scholarships and First Amendment issues.
After years of saying no, I threw up the white flag after "stop-being-a-fuddy-duddy" pressure from colleagues in the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau. I invited Chicagoan David Schwimmer of "Friends." When he made a series of demands, including flying a lady friend in from Seattle on my dime and registering himself under "Rupert Pupkin" (a Robert De Niro character in "The King of Comedy") at a particular hotel, I said screw that.
We wound up with Jill Hennessy of "Law and Order" and, later, the wonderful character actor, S. Epatha Merkerson, a D.C.-area product who was an even greater stalwart on "Law and Order." They weren't glamorous, but they weren't Capitol Hill sources who might be of some utility, either.
Things spiraled out of control during the Obama years, given the natural Obama-Hollywood nexus. Then celebrities were the two-legged clickbait that assured the association of eyeballs.
Yes, the underlying aim involves heralding good work by the White House press and generating scholarship revenue. But most attendees are either clueless about that reality or chatting away when the awards and scholarships are acknowledged. And the star speakers don't focus on the role of journalism since they are, first, the President doing jokes and, second, a professional comic doing jokes (and not as well as Obama in most years).
The evening is dominated by overweening self-regard and voyeurism ("Hey, look the gal from 'Scandal' is talking to Senator McCain!"). I suspect cases of whiplash result from some straining to locate the nearest famous soul.
And the coverage itself has evolved well beyond C-SPAN merely training a camera on the event without comment. Now the cable news networks, led by CNN, actually cover the red carpet entrance to the Washington Hilton by celebs and famous-in-Washington-for-the-moment politicians. Self-respecting reporters are forced to do their best Ryan Seacrest imitations — with studio analysis exhibiting a poor man's version of "Fashion Police" on E!
The celebs are mermaids in a cesspool at a crowded gathering whose very seating arrangements can convulse the association. As current and former officials will readily concede, there was the ignominious recent tenure of Ed Henry of Fox News (I speak, too, from personal experience), who proved the quintessential tin-pot dictator, taken with his brief clout as association chief, making table assignments the way a warlord might assign fiefdoms.
If things get toned down, that won't be a bad thing. Perhaps the journalists could reclaim their dinner focus on issues of the press, and Donald Trump, rather than on the presence of Kerry Washington, Matthew Morrison, George Clooney, Emma Watson or whomever media organizations are already expending inordinate amounts of time, energy and influence to invite.
But if the presence — or absence — of Trump diminishes some of the glittery crap, that's salutary. And hard-working association members like Garrett could defend the evening with even more verve.
Annals of self-indulgence
Raise your hand if you're a journalist and did not feel compelled to tweet during the Grammys last night to underscore your deep tie to American pop culture.
"Twitter Inc.’s two-day plunge after a disappointing fourth-quarter earnings report has pushed its market value below that of its fast-growing Chinese-language peer Weibo Corp. Weibo is now worth $11.3 billion, about $200 million more than Twitter." (Bloomberg)
"The Ballad of Bowling Green"
Well, there was the real Jake Tapper's interrogation last week of the real Kellyanne Conway. And then we had "Saturday Night Live's" rather creepy, too overt by half spoof of a "Fatal Attraction"-like Conway (Kate McKinnon) trying to kill Tapper (Beck Bennett) (Slate)
Rather more subtle is long-ago SNL alum Harry Shearer's "Ballad of Bowling Green," a song that is rather more cutting — pun intended — than the SNL effort.
"Who knows how many citizens had their lives turned upside down when terror never came 'round?" There was "the uneventful nightmare we shared....The questions don't stop in Bowling Green..."No one will tell their neighbors what to say...No one will learn the lesson they don't have to tell...Why did it feel just like a movie scene but no one yelled "Cut!' cut in Bowling Green." (SoundCloud)
Annals of transparency
"Reporters who are supposed to keep an eye on President Trump couldn't see him Saturday morning." (USA Today)
"White House reporters tasked with covering Trump tweeted they were holed up in a clubhouse basement of the luxurious Trump National Jupiter Golf Club & Spa."
"That wouldn’t be so bad if the windows and doors weren’t covered with black plastic, blocking all views of the outside world, including Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the golf course."
Obama wasn't much better. Much of the time the so-called pool was stuck somewhere where they couldn't even glimpse the golf course. If at a military base, they'd be stuck at a commissary where they couldn't even buy anything.
So don't get too outraged, Trump bashers. It's par for this course.
"Highlights" of Sunday
According to the White House Press Office's new "Top Highlights from Sunday's Shows," they were all Stephen Miller, the Trump aide also profiled in fairly similar weekend pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post (the former is stronger).
Five highlights, all Miller, as he made the rounds of all four morning shows. Surprise, they left out all his bending of the truth, including the claim of widespread voter fraud in bucolic New Hampshire. (Law Newz)
"Top Batman actors"
"Top 10 Batman actors of all time" was the headline on the early morning "First Reads" newsletter Saturday from The Washington Post. Open it and you got "Trump considers 'brand new" travel ban,'" Immigration authorities arrested hundreds," "Police needed at GOP town hall meetings," "U.S. cities opt for demolition," "They never saw this coming" (a rerun of a pre-inaugural Sunday magazine Kellyanne Conway interview) and, then, finally, the Batman story.
Low-rent use of clickbait or masterful way to get people into the tent for more serious stuff. Or a mix of both?
Well, at least that embarrassingly puffy pre-inaugural piece on Conway (call it a "beat sweetener"), which ran Sunday in the print edition's magazine, was journalistically counterbalanced by a good video elsewhere of Conway's straining to explain ambiguous declarations and falsehoods of late.
Fine arts journalism
Check out both Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the revival of "Sunset Boulevard," with Glenn Close reprising (and apparently improving upon) her Tony winning performance of 22 years ago and then David Mason's Wall Street Journal review of a new biography of the late poet Elizabeth Bishop. (Journal) Here's Brantley:
"Her interpretation of the show’s one great song, 'As If We Never Said Goodbye,' in which Norma visits her old studio lot, is a heart-stopper. Watching it from its beginning (when a set worker trains a spotlight on Norma’s face) to its end (when she steps to the edge of the stage to absorb the applause like an unquenchable sponge) is to understand with all your senses the addictiveness of stardom." (Times)
And guess where Trump needs spelling help?
"In quoting civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, the Department of Education on Sunday sent out a tweet misspelling his name. And then it sent out an apology that misspelled the word 'apologies.'" (Politico)
"There's probably never a good time for the Department of Education to misspell words, but the timing seemed particularly unfortunate for two reasons. For one, the misspelling of Du Bois' name came during the middle of Black History Month."
"Um. You spelled his name wrong. It's DuBois. Happy Black History Month, everybody!" tweeted journalist Soledad O'Brien. (@soledadobrien)
Reuters goes inside Duterte's switch in drug tactics
"When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte summoned his security chiefs to an urgent meeting one Sunday night last month, his mind was already made up." (Reuters)
"His military and law enforcement heads had no idea what was coming: A suspension of the police force's leading role in his signature campaign, a merciless war on illegal drugs."
Early non-Peabody Award nominee
It's so very early in the Trump administration. But an early front-runner for most sycophantic and poorly-conducted interview with Melissa McCarthy, oops, I mean Sean Spicer is Breitbart News White House reporter Charlie Spiering. Spiering, who does not seem to have started shaving yet, stumbled through this brief video effort right after the appeals court ruling in the immigration case:
Steve Bannon could service his cause well by loaning his old outfit 300 bucks for an hour's training for staff even from some former local TV reporter now serving as a B-list media consultant.
Interesting moment of announcing candor
At the end of CBS' Saturday third-round coverage of the PGA tournament at Pebble Beach, the famous player Dustin Johnson hit a ball out of bounds. There are distinct rules as to where you can then place the ball for your next shot.
Very clearly, analyst Nick Faldo and generally sycophantic announcer Jim Nantz both raised doubts as to whether Johnson had (with the OK of player partner Jordan Spieth, the eventual winner) incorrectly placed the ball for his next shot. They never used the word cheated but made clear, after showing replays, that they thought he'd saved himself a huge amount of yardage by erroneously placing the ball far closer to the hole than he should.
He hit his fourth shot from there and made a par five, surely helped by the placement.
Gender diversity in tech
"When I hear about the need to push gender diversity in tech and improve gender disparity in the industry, it takes me a second to appreciate the full reality of the situation," writes Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh in TechCrunch.
Working for free
"One of the often recurring discussions among professional photographers is whether or not we should ever work for free," writes Tim Gander. "I’ve been known to rail against those who do and against clients who request free pictures." (PetaPixel)
Well, it proved pretty clear why: helping a youth drop-in center stay alive.
The Murdochs and Trump
Largely relying on disclosures by The Financial Times and The New Yorker on links between the Murdoch and Trump families, The New York Times concludes it's all "acutely problematic for the leadership at The Wall Street Journal — owned by News Corp. — as it seeks to quell a rebellion by a group of staff members who believe that the paper has held them back from more aggressively covering Mr. Trump, they suspect, under pressure from Mr. Murdoch."
The morning babble
The Grammys, with an arena filled with those awful "liberals," was a morning piñata for "Fox & Friends." Those "Resist" arm bands on the likes of Katy Perry? "Take a breath and realize what he's (Trump) trying to do, it's about security," said co-host Brian Kilmeade in a pre-breakfast lecture.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" hammered national security adviser Michael Flynn over those calls to Russia that he apparently lied about to Vice President Pence. "You cannot embarrass the president and vice president that way,"said Joe Scarborough. "Unless you want to push alternative facts," said Mika Brzezinski. They were reacting largely to this New York Times piece on Flynn.
On CNN's New Day," David Gregory took after Stephen Miller's immigration declarations Sunday amid Miller's first-person cable news grand slam the day before. It also actually left the studio in New York for observations from actual correspondents overseas, in particular London-based Nic Robertson (nice scarf) and Clarissa Ward.
She argued that the Flynn discussion of sanctions with the Russians will prove a "very big deal." And, rest assured, the Russians have a transcript of the land line call, even if it "doesn't the light of day."