A Free Press and an Expensive Dinner

Paul Evans

Not long ago, Christopher Dodd (former US Senator, current CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America) told America that, “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all other liberties we hold dear are endangered…"

There is an ironic, non-partisan controversy building. It appears that the ritual “roast” commonly referred to as the “White House Correspondents’ Dinner” has become both the source and the story. By all accounts Conan O’Brien did a fine job making fun of the powerful and privileged; the President did well. Truth be told the 2,500 courtesans appear to have fulfilled their responsibilities as well: they laughed, they smiled, and they were seen being important.

Since the event a host of columnists (and political nerds including this writer) have been fascinated by the spectacle.

This event more than any other single event, highlights the disappearing lines between news-making and news-reporting; lines have been painted over with the broad brush of fame. However a person becomes “famous” (or infamous) no longer matters: getting onto the “A-List” is the means and the ends. Our top-tier “reporters” are paid extremely well by small but omnipresent coven of corporate giants that indirectly (and at times directly) determine the relative boundaries of reporting.

If there was any doubt about the role of profitability over politics – look at recent “changes” in the television lineups at CNN, FOX, and MSNBC.

After the end of World War II the United States emerged determined to remain a global power. This increased power transformed the landscape of Washington DC. The massive bureaucracy established to support and sustain a global hegemony grew exponentially; it continues to grow despite the economic realities faced by the rest of the nation.

Today, our politicians (pols) and the reporters with the duty to watch them live in the same city; send their children to the same private schools in the District; attend the same churches, parishes, and temples; and “know” each other far better than most of us realize. Familiarity does not itself cause corruption, but it does provide the opportunity for it.

The latest hullaballoo over the correspondents’ event has been treated with such “kid-gloves” because everyone involved understands the risk of the nation learning just how cozy the hens and the foxes have become. There is little attempt to hide the obvious, but the WHCD puts it front and center for all to see – and remember.

A democratic Republic depends upon a Free Press that answers to an ethical code above all else – even bonds of family and friendship. We have been open about the need for limits on politicians and the “revolving door” of business – without an audible discussion over the increasingly cozy relationship between the people that make news and the folks paid to identify and report things newsworthy.

With the advent of social media this spectacle has only grown more narcissistic. Images of celebrities with members of the media with pols filled the blogs this weekend as everyone rushed to update their “I love me” pages. Not surprisingly, criticism appears to be mounting from inside and outside Washington. The list of famous (and/or infamous) critics now includes: Tom Brokaw, Margaret Carlson, and Sarah Palin (okay – this is not so surprising).

It is telling that Brokaw and Carlson have joined the parade: politics has always been “show business” for ugly people (reportedly coined by Bill Miller), but when noted journalists recognize the dangers it is time for us all to be concerned.

The problem isn’t a fancy star-studded self-indulgent event; the problem is what this kind of event tells us about “normalcy” in the District. It should make us weary of a media and political establishment that view itself as partner rather than respectful adversary.

Not long ago, Christopher Dodd (former US Senator, current CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America) told America that, “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all other liberties we hold dear are endangered…"

This “right to know” is threatened whenever a small group of people control what is placed upon the table for public consumption – it is threatened each, every time a relationship causes an important story to be buried, hidden, or discarded. The irony of such a statement from a man that has now become the face of the Hollywood elites - is rich and tragic.

There is little difference in terms of impact between a state that lies to its public on purpose, and a state that provides less (and less) information to the public because of ratings (and profit) driven assumptions. Collusion by any other name is still collusion.

Associate Justice Hugo Black once put it this way, “Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell…”

Is there any doubt? Would the US have invaded Iraq in 2003 had the media been more focused upon the job at hand? A cynic might even assert that ratings drove the war - that a few people with motive put forward a specific narrative in the hopes of increasing profitability for clients and customers.

What might have been different if more journalists had asked the necessary (albeit uncomfortable) questions about WMD evidence, the real status of Saddam, or the post-war planning - rather than self-editing their skepticism in an effort to curry favor among the powerful – for that next interview opportunity?

Would the media be more interested in reporting on the legitimate issues associated with the Occupy Movement if corporate interests weren’t holding the purse strings? Or more importantly, is it merely coincidence the media has no interest in covering the issues surrounding “corporate personhood” – or is it something more?

Most of the time people try to do the right thing as they know it, but when a system is corrupt its benefactors are often complicit in the corruption – be it implicitly or explicitly. And the structure and systems of our existing media landscape have all the trappings of such a corrupt state.

Both Dodd and Black argue for an independent press. They view government interference as a shackle upon the reporting of information from a free and open press. And constraining the press is an anathema for democratic values.

But we must guard against the voluntary shackling of perks and privilege; we must remain wary of a cozy relationship between the pols and the media – especially when such powerful forces own the microphones of “mainstream media.” Discretion is good; too much discretion is an entreaty for collusion and inappropriate conduct.

Our press should be more concerned with reporting the information necessary for the Republic to function, than their respective popularity among the celebrities or pols they report upon.

It is a danger for our Republic when the daughters and sons of our media and pols are more comfortable with each other, than with the People of the United States – outside the Beltway.

In this way, the WHCD is an annual window into a different world.

It is fascinating to discover the reach of the permanent “establishment” class – the realm of the important and semi-important that govern our nation. Between the celebrities that jet about a world that has very little to do with reality – and the pols and media types that define reality – collusion is never more clear or obvious a danger for our Republic than during the evolving “WHCD Weekend.”

Remember: what started out as a dinner between opposing sides has now morphed into a made-for-television weekend extravaganza. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need journalists that are ethical as well as independent: familiarity with the permanent political class opens the door to an environment where the powerful shape the news available to the masses – a society where the "haves" not only own the vast majority of wealth but control the narrative of the nation, states, and communities as well.

A Free Press means not just the opportunity for media to write what must be written about the means and ends of government, but a Free Press means a professional cadre of dedicated, ethical men and women sufficiently independent to tell truth to power.

Blogs, social media, and websites associated with non-profit “do-gooder” initiatives provide incalcuable benefit and have evolved into a critical supplement for our structures and systems of self-governance, but these self-selected channels are not a substitute for a professional, skeptical press corps.

We need both, and we need both now more than ever before. Whether your politics bleeds red or blue or somewhere in between – we must have agreement upon the sustainment of an instrument for oversight without binding alliances.

Let us seek to reclaim the rights and responsibilities of a free citizenry; let us begin with a call for reforms to the revolving doors in media as well as to industry. The very fabric of our Republic is at stake.

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