That Man Tried to Run You Over. Why Are You Having Dinner With Him?

Bush broke with the consensus that created the modern White House press corps. One small but highly symbolic part of the consensus was the Correspondents dinner, and this is why it matters that thehas quit the event.
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It's good news that journalists at the New York Times will no longer participate in the bloated and compromised White House Correspondents Association dinner. Bravo. I await with some curiosity the explanation for what changed in their thinking. So far, there's been nothing.

One possibility: the editors will evade the intricate cultural politics of the matter.

And settle instead on the dinner's transformation into a celebrity event, where Huff Post's Laurie David (guest of CNN) and singer Sheryl Crow (guest of Bloomberg News) can grill Karl Rove on global warming. Rove, who was himself an invited guest of the New York Times! "The entire evening had the surrealistic feel of a Salvador Dali movie," said Arianna.

It's a lot easier to say the event has gone Hollywood than it is to engage with Frank Rich's argument in Sunday's Times: "for all the recrimination, self-flagellation and reforms that followed" from the collapse and ruin of the watchdog press under Bush, "it's far from clear that the entire profession yet understands why it has lost the public's faith." The dinner, he wrote, "is a crystallization of the press's failures in the post-9/11 era."

"It wasn't just this year's entertainment that had the faint whiff of mothballs," David Carr wrote in a Times column the Monday after. The dinner itself "only seemed to emphasize the distance between Washington and the rest of the country."

I asked Carr if he thought Dean Baquet, the Times Washington bureau chief, was reacting to his column.

Carr said no. "He attended, he did his own reporting, and he reached his own conclusions. He has been in the business in a leadership role for decades and he is in a position to make a judgment about the dinner's appropriateness for our Washington bureau." (I have e-mailed Baquet some questions, and I will let you know if I get something back.)

Two weeks ago, Jim Rutenberg, a Times correspondent in the Washington bureau, interviewed me about the upcoming Correspondents dinner and in particular the choice of 70's-era comedian, Rich Little, after last year's funny man, Stephen Colbert, held the press and president--and the dinner itself--up to extremely effective ridicule. This is not the opinion of the journalists who were there, of course, Rutenberg included. In his view Colbert "just wasn't funny."

Rutenberg's article made me wish I had followed, in this instance, blogger Dave Winer's policy. When asked for a phone or e-mail interview, he usually declines. "If you have a few questions, send them along, and if I have something to say, I'll write a blog post, which of course you're free to quote," he said last week. Responding to Winer, and to this event with Jason Calacanis and Wired magazine, Jeff Jarvis wrote: "The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought."

I know I'm rethinking it. Rutenberg and I had a pretty detailed conversation about the put down of the establishment press under Bush, certain failures of imagination in Washington journalism, the interpretation of Colbert's performance in 2006, and the "musty" feel that the invitation to Rich Little had. I pointed out, for example, that Little was at his peak at roughly the same cultural moment that the Washington press corps was at its peak in the afterglow of Watergate.

But what Jim needed me for was the bloggers vs. journalists debate.

Which is a frame I've been fighting for two years. "In hiring an impersonator practiced in an old-school approach to comedy, meant to entertain but not offend, the White House Correspondents' Association has, however, provoked left-leaning political activists, who see his assignment as a retreat from last year's dinner." (Subtext: Wow, the left is as angry with the press as the right was. Just listen to the so-called Net roots attack us for not carrying their message.)

Notice that it is "activists" who are upset with the White House press, and it is their conflict with civil, professional and reasonable journalists that creates friction enough for a story. I wanted nothing to do with that narrative. I told Rutenberg that I did not see the press as "in the pocket of Bush" (as many on the left do) but as overwhelmed by the phenomena of Bush-as-president, and by the radicalism of his Administration, especially the expansion of executive power. This included in one aspect the rollback of the press and its de-certification as questioner of the president.

Rutenberg recruited me into his narrative anyway. Colbert wasn't the first comic to insult the president, he wrote. "Imus angered the Clinton White House in 1996 when he made fun of Mr. Clinton as a philanderer at a Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner."

But that was pre-blogosphere, which is populated by people who "feel that the press was run over, and kind of told itself some story to avoid confrontation and lapsed into a phony kind of balance," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

It is enough to make some reporters bristle. "Some of them seem to want us to hate the people we cover," said Ken Herman, a White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers and an association board member. "They don't seem to understand that you can have a professional relationship with them where you don't hate them, and you can sometimes talk to them, and maybe have dinner with them."

Herman's "bristle" has nothing to do with what I think. But I was not misquoted. I was used to make a point Rutenberg wanted to make before he talked to me. As Dan Froomkin wrote the same day, "Rutenberg creates a false conflict. Rosen and Herman are both largely correct. The press has been played by this White House -- but that doesn't mean reporters have to be jerks."

Still, Rutenberg didn't violate any of the rules for interviewing sources.

And I knew what I was getting into when I called him back. Reporter and I talk for 30 to 45 minutes; he decides which twelve seconds he wants to use. If he has a pre-existing narrative that he wants me to ratify, chances are good I will say something he can use to do just that. Them's the rules.

I would have been better off blogging about his e-mailed questions. As Scott Rosenberg observed last week, "In the online conversation, the reporter doesn't get the last word. And the reporter doesn't get to filter which parts of the conversation are available to the public. No wonder journalists want to stick with the phone. But I think it's going to keep getting harder for them to get their sources to take the calls."

Scott is describing small shifts in the balance of power that put pressure on old practices.

The most revealing moment for me came when Rutenberg allowed that rollback and the retreat from empiricism may have happened. "But don't you think Bush is paying the price for that now?" he said. Here was a way of acknowledging press failure that allows the story to come out all right at the end. Presidents are supposed to pay a price if they diss the press, and look! ...The system worked.

In fact, Bush broke with the consensus that created the modern White House press corps.

One small but highly symbolic part of the consensus was the Correspondents dinner, and this is why it matters that the New York Times has quit the event.

But consider what Bush quit first. His chief of staff denied that there was any fourth estate role. "In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election," said Andrew Card. "I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." Bush told reporters the same thing at an August 2003 barbeque in Texas: "You're assuming that you represent the public," he said, "I don't accept that."

Back 'em up, starve 'em down, and drive up their negatives-- that was policy. Allies in the culture war were eager to help the White House marginalize and discredit the Washington press. In Scott McClellan, a stooge figure actually took over in the White House press room. Strategic non-communication became normal practice-- itself an extraordinary break with the past. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney's expansion of executive power meant there was way more to cover, but a weaker press to cover it. Just as there was weaker oversight, weaker opposition, and fewer controls on cooking the books.

What happened with me and Rutenberg happened also with "Frontline..."

... in its recent series, News War. I was interviewed for hours by correspondent Lowell Bergman. I wound up with one line in the film-- okay two. "The way that the press was sold and spun and just fooled by the White House in the run-up to the war represents more than just a missed story," I said in part one. "How can one say that we have a watchdog press after a performance like that?"

It seems I was supposed to be grateful for those two lines. (As one public television producer told me, a 30 to 1 ratio of film shot to footage used is common.) In fact I was grateful that Frontline released on the Web an edited transcript of my interview. But watching the film that aired on PBS made me regret that I had cooperated. I told that to executive producer Louis Wiley in an e-mail exchange we had after it aired. I said my frustrations weren't about seconds of air time; it was...

The way the film was edited to bring out one story: heroic press fighting against ownership and its budget cuts, a government that would like to silence it, and untrained bloggers and amateurs buzzing around, stinging like knats. This is the story Lowell wanted to tell. He's been a part of it in his career and feels very passionate about it. He's newsroom Joe himself, and he's got newsroom Joe's mindset. You let that perspective carry the day. You're entitled to make that decision, which is an editorial decision, and I'm entitled to be angry about it. Because it's inadequate. You had the materials to challenge it more, you just didn't want to.

I always loved it when Victor Navasky, editor, then publisher of The Nation would explain to journalists or J-students that, in his opinion, there was an ideology of the left (journalists nod) an ideology of the right (more nodding) and an ideology of the center. Not so much nodding at that.

"The press is full of ideologues of the center," he would say, eyes twinkling, ice cubes clinking.

"But they all deny it." And that's when the fun started. For while it's defensible to have a "centrist" ideology and be a reporter or editor, the journalists who would argue most strenuously with Navasky had a different proposition: theirs was an ideology-free zone. They wouldn't defend their politics; instead they would proclaim their innocence. Instead of thinking about it... ideologues of the center: do I recognize the type?... they just reacted.

Over time I realized the genius in Navasky's method of needling journalists. He was trying to show them a gap in their educations. They were unable to think politically about their own institution, but they could go on for quite a while about the separation between news and opinion.

Jay Rosen is on the journalism faculty at New York University and writes the blog PressThink, where this first appeared.

UPDATES: The explanations from the Times came in. See this piece and this one. Bill Keller: "These events create a false perception that reporters and their sources are pals, and that perception clouds our credibility. It's not worth it."

From a man who's been on many sides of it, Berkeley economics professor and former Clinton Administration official Brad Delong at his blog:

If the journalist is looking for a particular quote, figure out whether you want to be the person who gives that quote--and if not, get off the phone. If the journalist is looking for two paragraphs that can be dropped into the story as "experts say the real issues are..." give the journalist your best two paragraphs quickly. If the journalist is looking to educate him or herself, you can have a conversation--but at the start reserve the right to approve whatever quotes they want in the end to use, so that you can be sure that they are quotes you are comfortable giving.

If not--well, then, the journalist will play you like Jim Rutenberg played Jay Rosen. It's not "them's the rules." It's the interviewee who sets the rules. It's "I let Rutenberg turn me into a sock puppet, and I'm unhappy."

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