It’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents Dinner

Previously published at WGBH News.

You are forgiven if you thought this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a rerun. As with previous episodes, it featured a comedian whose entirely predictable raunchy fare came in for harsh, hypocritical denunciations; revulsion over the spectacle of media elites partying with politicians, lobbyists, and celebrities; and, of course, the ritual calls to end this benighted bacchanal once and for all.

“It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”

My purpose here today is not to offer yet another critique of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine. For what it’s worth, I thought she was pretty good. Despite what you may have heard, she did not mock the physical appearance of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Instead, she delivered an R-rated political monologue of the sort that should have surprised no one. “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, a writer, director, and comedian, told The New York Times.

So why the fake outrage? It has a lot to do with what the event has become: a celebration of money and power so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it has come define everything that we hate about Washington.

Earlier this week I rewatched “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a 2015 documentary by the former Politico journalist Patrick Gavin. The film offers an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look behind the scenes at how the dinner metastasized from the first modest gathering in 1921, attended by 50 people, to the bought-and-paid-for spectacle it has become: a five-day affair marked by some two dozen parties and, of course, the dinner itself, which now draws some 2,600 people. I have showed it to several of my classes, and they are invariably appalled by the wretched excess that’s on display.

Not to mention the rude manners. Gavin devotes part of the film to showing us Washington reporters and their guests talking over virtually everything that’s taking place on the podium: kids winning scholarships (a total of $100,000 is awarded each year, which is, as Gavin notes, a pittance compared to the opulence of the event itself), Ray Charles performing “Georgia on My Mind,” even a Marine color guard.

“Washington audiences liquored up want to talk to each other,” explains George Condon of National Journal. “They don’t want to listen to the entertainers.”

What is truly revolting, though, takes place away from the dinner. Because, as Gavin shows, the event has long since devolved into decadence. The real stars of the week aren’t the reporters, aren’t the politicians, aren’t even the celebrities. Rather, they are the corporations and lobbyists. “It’s about influence and playing the Washington game,” the publishing and advertising executive Kenny Day tells Gavin.

As Gavin acknowledges, even at the time that he was making his film there was a sense that the dinner had begun its slow slide to irrelevance. A signal moment in that decline, he says, was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s outspoken criticism in 2012. “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said. “It is time to rethink it.”

Of course, that slide has only accelerated under President Trump, who — unlike virtually all of his predecessors — has stayed away from the dinner. No doubt his absence added to the controversy over Michelle Wolf. Whereas previous comedians who got rough directed their barbs at the president (Don Imus with Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush), Wolf was stuck with picking on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. As CNN media analyst Brian Stelter put it, “The president is usually the center of gravity at the dinner, and the comedian serves as the counter-balance. But with Trump absent, the dinner is off-balance.”

The result was an impossible situation for the press corps, which came off as sycophantic and nasty at the same time. “It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “But the dinner somehow pulls it off.”

The White House Correspondents Dinner and all that goes with it became an embarrassment years ago, and it’s only getting worse. So what is the solution? Get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Drive a wooden stake through its corrupt and malignant heart.

Enough.

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White House Correspondents Dinner can’t go on after Trump’s toxic outburst

Last week on “Beat the Press,” I said that even though I’ve been arguing for years that the loathsome White House Correspondents Association dinner should be canceled, it had to go on as scheduled this year lest it look like the media were trying to punish President Trump.

Well, I’m going to flip-flop because of Trump’s incendiary tweet declaring that the press is “the enemy of the American People!”

Needless to say, this sort of rhetoric shows — once again — that Trump is clueless contemptuous about the role of the press in a democratic society. But let me go one step further: This could get someone killed.

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Billionaires’ bash: Big moves by Henry’s Globe, Bezos’ Post

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Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday may have been the biggest day yet for billionaire newspaper owners John Henry and Jeff Bezos. Henry’s Boston Globe launched the long-anticipated Crux, a free standalone website that covers the Catholic Church. And Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, bringing an end to the 81-year reign of the Meyer-Graham family.

At a time when the newspaper business remains besieged by cuts (including 22 Newspaper Guild positions at The Providence Journal this week, according to a report by Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio), Henry and Bezos are taking the opposite approach.

“You can’t shrink your way to success,” new Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. “Growth is the way to continue to build a strong news organization.” Ryan’s words were nearly identical to those of the Globe’s chief executive officer, Michael Sheehan, at the unveiling of the paper’s weekly political section, Capital, in June: “You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success.”

First Crux. To my non-Catholic eyes, the site appears to offer an interesting mix of the serious and the not-so-serious. The centerpiece is John Allen’s deeply knowledgeable reporting and analysis, some of which will continue to appear in the Globe. (In late August, Publishers Marketplace reported that Allen is writing a biography of Pope Francis with the working title of “The Francis Miracle.” No publisher was named, but according to this, Time Home Entertainment will release it in March 2015.)

Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin has weighed in with features on Native American Catholics who blend tribal and Roman traditions and on the Vatican Secret Archives, whose contents turn out to be not as interesting as the phrase makes them sound. Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín covers stories such as Pope Francis’ call for peace in Gaza. WGBH’s Margery Eagan, a former Boston Herald columnist, is writing a column called “On Spirituality.” The events calendar makes it clear that Crux is a very Catholic venture.

There’s a lighter side to Crux, too, such as a trivia quiz on the saints and updates on football teams from Catholic colleges. Crux’s own reporters are supplemented with wire services, including the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service, as well as personal essays such as the Rev. Jonathan Duncan’s rumination on life as a married Catholic priest with children (he used to be an Episcopalian). Crux is also asking readers to write brief essays; the debut topic is illegal immigration.

Two quibbles. An article on the suffering of Iraqi Christians was published as a straight news story, even though the tagline identifies it as coming from “the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need.” When you click to “learn more,” you find out that Church in Need is an advocacy organization that is actively seeking donations. The disclosure is sufficient, but the placement strikes me as problematic. If Crux were a print newspaper, the article could have appeared on the op-ed page. Crux needs a clearly marked place for such material as well.

My other quibble is that content is undated, leaving the impression that everything is now. That can cause confusion, as with a John Allen Globe piece on immigration that refers to “Friday night” — and links to an Associated Press story published on Aug. 2. (Dates do appear on author bios.)

The site is beautifully designed, and it’s responsive, so it looks good on tablets and smartphones. There are a decent number of ads, though given the state of digital advertising, I think it would make sense — as I wrote earlier this summer — to take the best stuff and publish it in a paid, ad-supported print product.

Globe editor Brian McGrory, Crux editor Teresa Hanafin, digital adviser David Skok and company are off to a fine start. For more on Crux, see this article by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review and this, by Justin Ellis, at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

A torrent of punditry has already accompanied the news that Frederick Ryan, a former chief executive of Politico, will become publisher of The Washington Post on Oct. 1.

The irony is thick. When Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VanDeHei proposed launching Politico under the newspaper’s auspices in 2006, they were turned down. Today, Politico often dominates the political conversation in a way that the Post used to (and, of course, sometimes still does). I’m not always a fan of Politico’s emphasis on politics as insider gamesmanship, but there’s no doubt the site has been successful.

As the Post’s own account makes clear, Ryan is a longtime Republican activist, and was close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That shouldn’t affect the Post’s news operations, though it could affect the editorial page — hardly a bastion of liberalism even now. In another Post story, Ryan “endorsed” executive editor Marty Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. Baron, a former Globe editor, may be the best newspaper editor working on this side of the Atlantic.

What concerns me is the strong scent of insiderism that is attached to Ryan. In an address to the staff, Ryan said one of his goals is “winning the morning,” according to a series of tweets by Post media blogger Erik Wemple (reported by Jim Romenesko). That might seem unremarkable, except that it sounds like something right out of the Politico playbook — um, make that “Playbook.”

A New York Times account by Ravi Somaiya dwells on Ryan’s obsession with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, and quotes Ryan as calling it “an important event.” Those of us who find the dinner to be an unseemly display of Beltway clubbiness might agree that it’s important, but for different reasons.

Then again, if Ryan can fix the Post’s business model and show the way for other news organizations, all will be forgiven. The Post, like the Globe, has been expanding under new ownership. On Tuesday, the Post unveiled its most recent venture, The Most, an aggregation site.

Bezos’ track record at Amazon shows that he’s willing to take the long view. I suspect that he’s still just getting started with the Washington Post.