Tuesday, May 03, 2005

May 2, 2005

White House Press Corps Disgraces Itself -- Claps

If the White House Press Corps got any closer to the people they cover we they would be exchanging body fluids.

Saturday night main mainstream media celebs gathered for their annual love-fest the White House Correspondents' Association's Dinner. How many things are wrong with this? Let me try to count them.

First, ask yourself this -- why the hell do White House reporters need their own association? There is no shortage of reporter-clubs and associations they can join if they are lonely -- the Washington Press Club is nice and just down the street, and if they are serious about uncovering the truth I recommend a membership in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Association.

So, why a White House Correspondents' Association?

Because they're special. This is the top, top beat. While other reporters chase police cars and interview county commissars, White House reporters munch their morning donuts and sip latte a few feet from the most powerful man in the world. But wait, it gets better. The president not only knows them by first name but assigns nicknames to some as well. Imagine that.

Imagine this. It’s 8:45 am and you are scuffing your way across the White House lawn on the way to work and the President of the United States of America spots you. He waves and shouts “Hey, morning Stretch, you’re up early.” Whoa! Now, that’s special.

Since there are no reporting rungs further up the career ladder, these reporters decided they deserved their own club, a place where they can gather with their own kind. After all, who else but those who share the rarified air of the White House understand what they endure, or the way-inside jokes?

So now they have their own exclusive club, what now? An association needs to not only recognize the “special-ness” of it’s own special members, but also needs to make sure it recognizes it’s own “special-ness” so we all understand why it’s so special to be a member. So they came up with the idea for an annual dinner.

But hey, every association has an annual dinner, nothing special about that -- unless you notice who the guests of honor are for this one. They are, to put it mildly, the most special guests in the world – the President of the United States and the First Lady. No other association can top that bill. Not even the Academy Awards. No siree. If special is what you crave an invite to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, is where it’s at. Only Monica Lewinsky managed to get closer to most power man in the world.

And so there they all were, the Andreas, Wolfs, Mathews, the Fox gang, the Washington Posters, the New York Timers, if they had a White House pass they were there all gussied up in gowns and tuxedos. No ink-stained wretches in this crowd. No siree Bob.

And there at the head table sat President and Mrs. Bush. Each performed their own scripted shticks making fun of themselves and the press. The Bush’s delivered their lines poorly, like bad actors reading for a part off a script they never saw before. But never mind, the “journalists” in the audience obediently threw their heads back in boisterous laughter and gave each a standing ovation. (Shades, I am sure, of the days when old Soviet leaders like Khrushchev told jokes at Communist Party Correspondent’s Dinners.)

But forget the jokes. All were lame and obvious gags that would have bombed had you or I delivered them during open mic night at any local standup club. No it’s not about the bad jokes from the podium but the bad jokes sitting in audience.

I’m sorry but I’m an old reporter and still believe that Job #1 of any one who calls him or herself a journalist is to keep a professional distance between themselves and those they are being paid to keep honest. You don’t socialize with those you cover. Period.

And you sure as hell don’t throw a lavish bash for them every year and dress up in your best party duds, yuck it up at their jokes, stand and clap your hands raw and have your picture taken with them. (Holy crap. The very fact I have to write that line makes me sick.)

“Oh, lighten up Pizzo,” they might retort. “It’s an innocent little dinner where people who have to work under tremendous pressure every day can let their hair down a bit.”

Okay, fine. Then let’s also start up a Federal Prosecutor’s Association so they can have an annual dinner at which some of their high-profile targets get to roast them. I can see it now. Elliot Spitzer sitting there in a tux laughing his head off as Ken Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and Bernie Ebbers made jokes:

“Hey, Elliot did you hear,” Bernie cracks, “I have a new cookbook coming out this fall entitled, “Book Cooking for Dummies.’… Hey, I just flew in from visiting my money in Bermuda, and are my arms tired…. but seriously folks, take my accountant… please…”

Spitzer throws his head back in hysterical laughter, stands and applauds wildly. After all that pressure prosecuting crooks, how nice it would be if, just once a year, the cops and the crooks they chase could just let their hair down and laugh about it all.

Give me a friggin’ break. The White House Correspondents' Association is - to put it bluntly - a disgrace. First it’s a disgrace that the WHCA exists in the first place. And that it then feels it must further disgrace itself and it’s full-of-themselves members once every year with this glitzy, groveling group grope.

Maybe instead of sponsoring this disgraceful dinner every year the WHCA should turn itself into a force for good. God knows the quality of White House reporting has -- to put it mildly -- suffered in recent years. Maybe instead of reassuring their members they are special they should start enforcing some tried and true journalistic standards.

Here's an idea. For starters they could throw Robert Novak out and demand CNN stop putting him on the air until he explains why two other reporters are facing jail for revealing a CIA source when he was the one who broke that story but is not facing jail. Hey Robert, tells us, how’s that work? My guess is you gave up your source the first time the Feds shined a bright light in your eyes. Robert Novak and Jeff Gannon, two slices of baloney cut from the same rotten stick.

And of course the “liberal media” hating crowd from FOX “News” were sitting right there among the very White House correspondent’s from other media companies FOX berates and ridicules. Yep there they were, yoking it up and slapping backs with the rest of them Saturday night. (Nothing personal. Just business -- as usual.)

After my first assignment to Washington many years ago I returned to California convinced that the White House Press Corps was an inherently flawed institution. Media outlets that insist on posting reporters at the White House, (as well as the Pentagon and the State Department,) should treat the beat like combat assignments by imposing a one-year and you're out, rule. One year in and two years out. After one year at the White House they should be assigned back onto a general reporting beat. Because nothing improves a reporter's skills like general reporting. First it sharpens reporting skills. And, as bonus, it keeps reporters grounded and humble.

The argument the White House Correspondent’s Assoc. makes against rotation is that it takes time to learn the ropes and develop sources on this important beat. Nonsense. Any reporter worth his or her salt is used to being assigned a story, learning what needs to be understood fast and getting the story right and on deadline. That's their job. Let there be a 45-day period where the outgoing reporter works with the incoming replacement. That’s all it should take – if that is, the reporter is worthy of the assignment in the first place.

The trouble with posting reporters for years at the White House is that they make friends there. They get to know those they have to cover as human beings. They develop real sympathies for them. They see their families, their kids, even their pets. They get invited to weekend barbeques at their homes or affairs. None of that improves their reporting. The result is softer stories. It's just human nature. The same reason farmers warn their kids not to make pets out of the farm animals. Because the day will come when they have to eat them.

Also, just as staying Washington turns politicians into … well, politicians, covering just the White House and Congress turns reporters into political groupies who, like band-groupies soon forget the music as it all becomes about the band.

So, there they were Saturday night clapping and laughing at the very people who have spent the last five years trying to gut America’s broadcast media. And, even as laughed at their jokes and the champagne flowed, they were still at it.

The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is aggressively pressing public television to correct what he and other conservatives consider liberal bias, prompting some public broadcasting leaders - including the chief executive of PBS - to object that his actions pose a threat to editorial independence…chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, contracted last year with an outside consultant to keep track of the guests' political leanings on one program, "Now With Bill Moyers." (Full Story)

Every single reporter who attended that dinner Saturday night should all be ashamed of them self. Period.

By Stephen Pizzo
Raconteur at Large

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