Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Death of Real News

The White House correspondent’s dinner was always my favorite Washington event. In order to go, you have to be invited by a White House correspondent—someone who covers the President on a daily basis and thinks you are a valuable resource, or at least the invitation won’t be wasted because your presence at the dinner will be notable. Or your invitation needs to come from a large or wealthy media organization because the table costs big bucks and every invitee needs to be worth the cost of the ticket. I never had a relationship with an organization, I’m not good at interpersonal greater scheme of things. But even in my non-White House years, I knew at least one journalist who had always had a ticket for me – my pal Steve Daley, a brilliant reporter, and insightful blogger http://failedtalkers.blogspot.comwho/ worked then for The Chicago Tribune. I’d like to say that he invited me because I was invaluable as a resource (it’s everyone in Washington’s dream), but he invited me because I knew everyone worth knowing, and he didn’t have to “take care” of me. Furthermore, I always (and I mean year after year), wore my mother’s antique head-to-toe white sequins gown and I was gorgeous – in my humble opinion.

The first time I was invited to this dinner was not with Steve. It was with Bill Plante, the CBS White House correspondent and more importantly, a good friend. But my invitation (I don’t know why) came from Time Magazine. This meant that instead of sitting with him, I was put at a table where Henry Kissinger was my dinner partner. Not that I admired or agreed with anything the esteemed Dr. Kissinger said, but his conversation was fascinating – even if it was with the notable eight old farts (I was a young fart) at table number Two, the most prestigious seating except for- you guessed it - table number One. The most memorable part of the evening was Jane Olivor, the entertainment. Jane was a relatively unknown performer (at least in Washington circles), but she was on my list of favorites. Anyway, for whatever reason, she admired Henry and asked to meet him. Since he didn’t know who she was and I made it clear that I did, he took me backstage. OK, he was a war criminal, but not a bad guy.

Years ago, that dinner was an opportunity for important journalists and political people to spend a social evening. It was an “off the record” occasion for these two groups of adversaries to get to know one another. It seems to me that this is no longer the case, because now the media invitations go to Hollywood celebrities rather than notable government or political sources. This dinner is a clear example of media priorities – to have access to entertainment rather than develop substantive government “sources”. This is certainly understandable: wouldn’t you rather make dinner conversation with George Clooney than Bill Frist. But if you look at who sits where and why, you will find that the way opt for entertainment is a clear reflection of what most “news” has become, and it’s not pretty. If you watch the network morning shows you might see an interesting political/issue driven face, but more time is given to the celebrity promoting a movie or a TV show, especially if the movie is owned by the parent company or the TV show on the same network, than to a crisis with the environment. News, as we used to know it, is reserved for old people after 6:30pm. (The ads on evening news are uniformly medical ones about losing various bodily functions, age related impairment, and the trauma soon to be faced by a lack of retirement income.)

And the same is true for newspapers. They are no longer the news delivery system of choice for a majority of people. Rather than read a newspaper or watch a news show, the 18-35 generation would rather get their news from the internet. They prefer an analysis from Colbert – who, if no one remembers, is a comedian.

Here is my concern, not that the White House correspondent’s dinner, as well as the White House photo dinner and all the other little White House soiree’s may go the way of TV rabbit ears – cute but serve no purpose. But that newspapers and substantive TV reporting will find they have little or no financial support—so they too will be a pair of rabbit ears. Maybe they deserve it for their lack of courage and not staying relevant, but then who investigates government abuse, corporate corruption, and all those issues that one reporter learned had a disastrous impact of the country and wrote about it until the problem was dealt with. Woe is us if we replace a real news effort with “American Idol”. And woe is us unless we find a way to make “real news” as important as “American Idol”. Now That’s Entertainment! We're just sayin'....Iris

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