As a physician who has spent my career in academia doing biomedical research and taking care of patients, I don't have much time to watch television. However, I regarded the eighth Obama White House Correspondents Association dinner (April 30, 2016) as a milestone event of sorts, as it would be the last time that our nation's first black president would hold forth in such a way. While I was amused and impressed by the POTUS's biting jokes and deft delivery and timing, I was surprised by the spectacle of what the White House Correspondents Association dinner had become.
Actually surprised is a bit of a euphemism; I was appalled by the preening on the "Red Carpet" of pols and denizens of the news media coupled up with movie stars, super models and social media celebrities while a solemn commentary on who was wearing who and how "marvelous" he or she looked droned in the background. Since when did journalism subscribe to the celebrity culture of tabloid and social media? What does serious news and journalism have in common with the entertainment industry and celebrities, and how does the latter enhance responsible government and the mission of the fourth estate?
It has been painfully apparent for some time that lack of expertise does not discourage celebrities and entertainers from opining on all matters of domestic and foreign policy (witness Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Dennis Rodman, Susan Sarandon and Jane Fonda), and has provided them access to the highest levels of government frequently extending into the Lincoln bedroom.
The news industry used to have principles and standards, although in recent years it has become harder to recognize this. In so many ways the genres of serious journalism have morphed into their own forms of entertainment. This was brilliantly foreshadowed, so many years ago, by Paddy Chayefsky in the movie Network in which a Walter Cronkite-like news anchor has a psychotic episode and is inveigled by cynical TV executives into hosting a news cum variety show that is a ratings success. As Edward R. Murrow stated, when the news media starts worrying about ratings, it ceases to be journalism and becomes entertainment. Nothing reflects this metamorphosis more than what the WHCA dinner has become.
The contagion of the entertainment culture and its conflation of celebrity with knowledge, has recently infected my profession of medicine. Jenny McCarthy rails against vaccines as the cause of autism; Suzanne Somers opines on nutrition and hormones; and Tom Cruise enlightens us about mental illness while deriding psychiatry in favor of Scientology.
This professional cross-over can go both ways as we have seen with Dr. Mehmet Oz, a member of my own Columbia University faculty. Of course medical/psychological advice shows are not new, but previously these were confined to telegenic know nothings like Dr. Phil or various media doctors with no academic pretensions or serious medical credentials. In this regard, Oz has broken new ground, and set a new standard for what passes for medical infotainment. Hence, the protest from the ivory towers of academic medicine.
The fatuous culture of celebrity on display at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, that has captivated Washington's news media - government complex was perfectly portrayed in Mark Leibovitch's book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital.
If the news media continues on its current course, it could converge with Dr. Oz's tawdry turn. Then maybe we'll see medical researchers bringing movie stars and models to the Lasker Awards Gala or the annual meeting of the National Academy of Medicine. Or better yet, Dr. Oz hosting next year's White House Correspondents Association dinner.