Dog-Training the Press Corps
Journalists who heap the most lavish praise on the White House are rewarded with the most valuable treats
This weekend, the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner was held, and it is — as Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan explained in the best analysis ever of that event — the purest expression of the total blending of political power, media subservience, and vapid celebrity in one toxic, repulsive, and destructive package. It’s imperial rot — the Versailles virus — in its most virulent form. Of course, Stephen Colbert, in the best political speech of the last decade, used his appearance at that banquet in 2006 to clearly set forth the rules by which they function:
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
None of that has changed. When I first began writing about politics, I mistakenly thought that the bias of the Bush-worshipping establishment media was a pro-GOP bias. It isn’t (and it’s obviously not a “liberal bias”). That’s not how they function. They aren’t nearly so substantive as to be driven by any sort of belief or ideology or anything like that. Their religion is the worship of political power and authority (or, as Jay Rosen says, their religion is the Church of the Savvy). Royal court courtiers have long competed with one another to curry favor with the King and his minions in exchange for official favor, and this is just that dynamic. Political power is what can give them their treats — their “exclusive” interviews and getting tapped on their grateful heads to get secret documents and invited to White House functions and being allowed into the sacred Situation Room – so it’s what they revere and serve.
There are many words for this behavior. “Adversarial,” “independent,” and “watchdog” are, manifestly, not among them. But it produces many personal rewards for them. It’s what David Halberstam meant when he spoke to Columbia Journalism School students less than a year before his death in 2007 and said: “By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.” He added: “One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.).” One could similarly say: the more the White House chooses you for all sorts of rewards, invitations, access and favors, and the more praise it lavishes on you, the less of a journalist and the more of a state propagandist you are.
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