It was announced yesterday that, in a break from tradition, the annual White House correspondents’ dinner will not be featuring a comedian next year. Instead it will be historian Ron Chernow—whose biography of Alexander Hamilton served as an inspiration for the mega-musical—who will be appearing as a guest speaker. Chernow has said of his upcoming appearance: ‘While I have never been mistaken for a standup comedian, I promise that my history lesson won’t be dry.’ Suddenly the White House correspondents’ dinner is sounding like a much more sombre experience.
Good. To hell with that cosy giggling love-in.
Ok, wait. Maybe I should back up a bit.
The White House correspondents’ dinner is a night of black-tie hobnobbing between the journalists covering the White House and the members of the White House themselves. It began in 1921, started by the members of the White House Correspondents’ Association—an association of journalists founded in 1914 in response to a rumour that a congressional committee would be deciding which reporters could attend President Wilson’s press conferences. Traditionally held on the last Saturday in April at the Washington Hilton, over the years the dinner’s entertainment has taken on a variety of different formats, with movies being shown, musical acts performing, and various other entertainers appearing.
Since the mid-80’s, more often than not, the featured speaker has been a comedian, who uses their time to roast both the president and his administration. The president usually gives some back. This has given rise to a number of famous moments. Stephen Colbert’s searing, deadpan indictment of the at the time barrel-scraping anti-intellectualism of George W. Bush is often pointed to as a high point of a comedian really giving it to the president with both barrels. On the flip side, President Obama’s well-written and deftly delivered response roasts are seen as an example of what a cultured, even-tempered commander-in-chief could and should be like. Indeed there is now a bountiful amount of liberal nostalgia for these vanished halcyon days, when antagonist Republican presidents would not be afraid to take some on the chin and urbane Democrat presidents would deliver witty banter. And no wonder, really, what with our present being poisoned by the crass horrors of the notoriously thin skinned and fragile ego-d Donald Trump, a president who has an intensely adversarial relationship with the mainstream media as well as the comedy establishment, and who has—unsurprisingly—refused to attend any of the dinners held during his administration.
Now, you might think that since the risk of a comedian lighting his rotund orange arse on fire has been removed that Trump might now be attending next year’s event. But no, perhaps still feeling the sting of Michelle Wolf’s blistering verbal volley earlier this year he has already refused to attend, even with that alteration. This is naturally being read as yet another indication of Trump’s dangerous contempt and hostile attitude towards the press, one that is having increasingly violent real world consequences. Which is true. Trump’s attitude towards the press is dangerous. Labelling the press the ‘enemy of the people’ is a classic move straight out of the fascist play book. It should be roundly condemned. His shirking away from any challenge is cowardly and damages public discourse.
The White House has new “decorum” rules for reporters: pic.twitter.com/Sl1SpKh0DV— Tarini Parti (@tparti) November 19, 2018
Nevertheless. We would be remiss to not use this opportunity to interrogate the nature of the White House correspondents’ dinner, as well as the press itself. Because let’s be honest. It’s a rotten event and a rotten institution, emblematic of a lot of the things that have gotten us into the sorry mess that we now find ourselves in. The press holds nothing in higher regard than itself. The image of the crusading reporter, fearlessly sniffing out the truth and bringing power to heel, is one that permeates our culture. In truth, while there are notable examples of fearless reporters doing valuable work, they are few and far between—and when they do exist they do so within the world of independent media, far away from the circles of people being invited to attend the White House correspondents’ dinner. The mainstream media organisations represented there more often than not function as unofficial stenographers for the powers that be. I’ve written about this before:
The famous linguist, scholar, and political commentator Noam Chomsky famously came up with a model to describe this phenomenon. Working with Edward S. Herman in the 80’s he developed the Propaganda Model of media control. It argued that large media companies, owned by big business and dependent on advertising revenue as they are, would have a vested interest in not challenging the status quo beyond a certain point. Yes, there would be a freedom of debate allowed, but that freedom would only be permissible within accepted margins. Crucially, Chomsky and Herman explained, these ideals would not be enforced in any overt way. This would not be a hammer-fisted Soviet approach, but a far more sophisticated and self-enforcing system, much more efficacious by this design. Journalists would come to learn what was acceptable. The Iraq War serves as a useful case study once again. Commentators — respected conscientious liberals and hawkish conservatives alike — joined the chorus of drum beats for that invasion. They may have framed their reasons differently, but the end result was the same. Those who voiced opposition were either marginalised, ridiculed, or attacked, and visibly so. The idea, the reflex, of conformity that way becomes ingrained, invisible, within the profession. Dissent still exists, of course, but again within very specific boundaries. Some things just cannot be questioned. The primacy of the Western world and its ‘enlightened’ status compared to the rest of the globe; the benign nature of the motives that guide our foreign policy; the fundamental correctness, minor flaws aside, of consumer capitalism and a heavily financialised economy - these are, in effect, sacred pillars, among many.
The group conformity of mainstream reporters is sometimes easiest seen in the concept of journalistic access. In reporting on doings in the White House—or other centres of power—journalists very often depend on information coming directly from the source. Reporting something coming straight from the horse’s mouth is seen as a mark of distinction and prestige. These reporters understand that if they report things in ways that the source does not like, the source may well deny them access. Gradually a relationship develops that is about as far from the mythic adversarial one that the profession likes to cultivate as you can get, and that is how you end up with reporters clinking glasses and enjoying fine dining with politicians at events like the White House correspondents’ dinner.
Because of the openly hostile attitude that Trump has for large swathes of the ‘respectable press’, the flavour of this relationship has now morphed a little bit. Instead of a jovial and mutually respectful character it once had it now resembles a more parasocial exchange. The Trump administration treats the press with contempt, occasionally lashing out at people like Jim Acosta who dare to openly and repeatedly challenge him, but the press—despite an ostensibly opposing position—still feed off of Trump’s outbursts and tantrums. Nevertheless, though they occasionally push back against the tide of nonsense flowing from the White House, they do not do so nearly enough. It’s perverse that when a reporter does do this, like Mehdi Hasan recently, the event itself is newsworthy.
Hey US media folks, here, I would argue immodestly, is how you interview a Trump supporter on Trump's lies:pic.twitter.com/D8qElaic7o— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) November 14, 2018
That is what the press should always be like. There’s a quote popularly attributed to (who else?) Orwell that goes: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.’ Ninety-five percent of the reporting that happens in the mainstream media is nothing more than a form of public relations. That may have improved slightly under Trump because the press’ ego has been wounded, but the change is minimal, and an aberration.
Trump’s administration is one characterised by aberrations, by breaks from the norm, but too often these are surface level, and one need to examine the more important and numerous continuities in order to keep a clear head amidst the noxious Trumpian fumes. Because one of the biggest dangers right now is that due to the sheer, loud, unceasing horror of Trump’s administration we will start to think that everything that came before was basically fine. You can see this happening already. The attempted image rehabilitation of George W. Bush, war criminal, is just the most egregious of manifestations, but nostalgia for the pre-Trump days, especially among the liberal commentariat, abounds. And in many ways that is completely understandable, as Trump has taken things that were bad, and he has absolutely pushed them even further. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that things were most definitely not fine before Trump. They weren’t. That is how we ended up with Trump in the first place. The untold millions of Americans suffering the ravages of neoliberal politics down the decades are a testament to that. The vast, deeply embedded structures of racism and misogyny within America’s institutions are proof of that. The corporate class’ ever-tightening grip on America’s political system and its transformation of it into a pseudo-oligarchy is a damming indictment of what came before. The countless victims of the endless imperial wars of aggression waged by America abroad speak silently and accusingly to the horrific nature of the state of things. And the accelerating industrial-capitalism-led plunge into an imminent global climate catastrophe will soon bloom into a terrible epitaph for how bad things were before Trump ever got to where he is.
These things led directly to where we are now. In an ideal world, the press would’ve prevented this, rather than been complicit in it. In an ideal world they would have been reporting responsibly on climate change; on the corporate capture of both political parties; on the institutional white patriarchal supremacist biases; on the criminal enterprises that run our financial system. They didn’t do any of that. It is not in their nature to that. The chummy relationship between the government and the corporate media got us into the existential mess that we find ourselves in now, where women and minorities are facing ever greater dangers; where upwards wealth redistribution is gathering pace; and where the threat of a fascist international is suddenly very real. The White House correspondents’ dinner is just an annual event, a chance for politicians and reporters to let their hair down and relax together for an evening. But it is also incredibly revealing of the kind of unfit-for-purpose relationship that exists between those in power and those that are meant to hold them to account. Rather than adding the banishment of comedians from the event to our ever-growing list of outrageous acts committed by the Trump administration and contrasting that against a fondly remembered better time that once was, we should use it an opportunity for honest reflection. If we survive Trump, we can’t just go back to the way things were. We have to do better. It’ll be a step by step process, but we can’t just settle for going back to a norm that is a President using a method of warfare that has murdered hundreds of civilians as a joshing jab against the Jonas brothers and to have a roomful of black-tied journalists and comedians laugh along. If we do we’ll have learned nothing.
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