“We’re not Fake News!”

On April 30, 2017, in DCView, PoliticalView, by Focus Washington

The 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner – the first in decades without a keynote by a sitting President – was a response by the media to the charge that they, as a whole, are fake news.

“The Media is not Fake News,” said Woodward and Bernstein, the two celebrated journalists who uncovered the Watergate Scandal. The choice of delivering this message through journalists who brought down a sitting president is certainly not accidental. At the very least, it is a reaffirmation of basic postulates of the role of a free press in democracy. At most, it is a covert threat to President Trump to building the case for impeachment.

To say that mainstream media and the Trump Administration have developed a strained relationship is an understatement. With the exception of Fox News, Trump has repeatedly called the media, and specifically journalists on the White House beat, “fake news” – an apparent tactical move to counter the narrative that it was fake news spread about his political opponents that helped him win the Presidency.

But, in fact, other political considerations notwithstanding, it was perhaps less ‘fake news’ that contributed to Trump’s win, but the uneasy attraction that the media had for him while covering the presidential elections. All his shocking statements about core foreign policy positions, his dismissive nicknames for his political opponents, his racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric – all of that was covered, focusing otherwise scarce media time on candidate Trump.

There have been several moments when the media had a mea culpa – a moment of “what have we done?” Many expected that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner would be a more forceful call to arms. The start of a drumbeat to counter a dangerous tendency in American and indeed global politics to stifle a free press.

Woodward and Bernstein did share a few lessons. “Almost inevitably,” Bernstein said, “unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lying is combined with secrecy, there’s usually a pretty good road map in front of us.”

Perhaps so, but then, for such high stakes, more light on the road ahead and louder voices calling forward are necessary. Events such as the Correspondents’ Dinner could have served such a purpose. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

By Chuck Conconi

It certainly isn’t important in the present scheme of things that President Trump has made a petulant decision not to attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His decision upset some of the dinner planners, but he may have inadvertently accomplished a good thing for Washington journalism.

Over the years, presidents have found time, often reluctantly, to attend the glittery, black-tie dinner, inelegantly known as the Nerd Prom. The dinner boasts the good deed cover of raising money for scholarships. It also is an opportunity for reporters to have a convivial evening with people they cover and to have a good time.

In recent years, however, the Correspondents’ Dinner became a showbiz celebrity event with respected media organizations vigorously competing to bring in as many Hollywood and entertainment world celebrities as could be fitted at a table. The dinner probably reached its nadir when reality television stars, like the Duck Dynasty hillbillies were sought after celebrity guests.

And to continue the Los Vegas glitter, a big-name comic emcee was necessary who often wasn’t as humorous as the President who has his speech writers and outside New York/Los Angles talents working overtime coming up with funny lines. And partly because he is the President, he often received the biggest laughs, his jokes dutifully picked up by television the following day.

Having been both a guest and also having covered the red carpet arrivals for television, it was often disheartening to see respected Washington newsmen acting like 13-year-olds catching sight of Justin Bieber.

The more affluent media organizations like NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair host impressive cocktail parties, as do several other media organizations with more shallow purses. The dinner is also a big money raiser for the Washington Hilton where most of the parties are held and where the largest ballroom in town is jammed with as many tables and people that the fire marshal will allow.

It is often argued by journalists that this hot ticket dinner, and the more prestigious Gridiron Dinner (President Trump also declined an invitation to attend), exists mainly to get newsmen and political leaders to get to know each other better and to have a better understanding of the roles of each.

There is some rationality to that reasoning, but conscientious journalists are expected to maintain some distance between themselves and the people they cover. Politicians, by their innate nature can be likable, and it is sometime difficult for a journalist to be tough when necessary on someone you cover and enjoy meeting with over dinner and drinks.

Journalistic organizations are aware of this problem and understand that regular beat reporters can get the good day-to-day stories, but if there is a need to dig beyond the daily news events, it takes a reporter who is outside the news beat structure. The Watergate expose by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein is the obvious example where many beat reporters, even at the Washington Post, were opposed to the digging by the young newsmen who eventually brought down a president.

There is no question that the White House is a prestigious beat, but too often the famous newsmen who cover there are more like stenographers taking news information fed to them in press briefings and announcements. It’s a great beat because you get to travel the world with the President and be part of televised press conferences and maybe be seen by people back home.

President Trump, with a greater antipathy toward the press than perhaps even Richard Nixon, has injected new energy into the White House press corps. No reporter there is going to readily accept the often alternative fact information from the White House press office. And that is a good thing. The media and the politicians from municipal governments to Washington, need to have a respected adversarial relationship.

Both sides need to develop a trust for the role each plays and President Trump deciding not to be part of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner may be off to a good start. Obviously, the thin-skinned president would not have enjoyed the friendly jibs from the head table speakers and he knew that even the powerful media organizations would have difficulty producing glittery celebrity world guest if he attended and he would be blamed, not that he cared. All one needs to do is look at the paucity of Hollywood celebrities at the Republican National nominating convention in Cleveland.

President Trump wasn’t trying to do Washington journalism a favor, but by not attending the Correspondents’ Dinner, he has. Maybe the dinner can truly focus more on its earlier established roll of promoting responsible, ethical journalism. Good journalism is and should be hard work, and just maybe, a dinner focused on responsible, First Amendment journalism, is a move in the right direction.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can
take care of it!