President Donald Trump may have done American journalism a favor by refusing to attend next month’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
A huge favor.
But in their typical “opposition party” peevishness, the Washington Beltway journalistic elite can’t grasp this. When Trump announced he wouldn’t attend the event, many journalistic hands were wrung all but raw.
He denounces the media as the enemy of the people, and the journalists rage. Now it’s a drama, a clique of middle school mean girls furious to learn their victim won’t sit with them at the lunch table.
I don’t wish to offend my colleagues who love such journalistic social events as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or the Gridiron Club Dinner. Professional societies are important, and seeing old colleagues is a good thing.
Especially if you drink too much and tell old lies and end up doing stupid, undignified things and wake up with terrible hangovers the way you once did as cub reporters.
Yet there is a whiff of the Victorian about these Washington journalism fetes that bothers me. What’s troubling is that journos and rulers are on the inside, together, bonding, laughing, roasting each other, celebrating their good fortune at being at the heart of empire.
Outside is for the American people.
There was a time when I attended a few of these dinners. But I made sure to mock them in the paper so I wouldn’t be invited back and miss something truly important, like my kids’ soccer games.
The correspondents’ black-tie dinner is about toasting and laughing at the president’s jokes in an obsequious but dignified manner, with much polite tittering.
And the other one Trump shouldn’t attend, the Gridiron, is an even fancier white-tie and tails affair, and involves musical entertainment. Journalists perform onstage and sing parodies of Broadway show tunes, to the great amusement of the powerful. It is a night of pithy ditties.
But the pithy ditty business bothered me. Perhaps it was the journalists on stage, performing as jesters. In Chicago, you might get drunk with an alderman, but you’d never, ever dance for one. And you’d never sing a pithy ditty to a Chicago politician, not in private, not in public, not drunk or sober or stark raving mad.
So why would Washington journalists perform for the president, tittering at his jokes or singing and dancing as in some late 19th-century music hall at the dawn of the marriage between journalism and progressivism?
Because they want to.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? They want to.
It’s an even greater problem than the liberal media vs. Trump divide. That one is expected, predictable and commonly understood.
But the yearning to be a part of royal pageantry is something else again.
If Trump indeed stays away from the dinner, the presidential absence might just compel a few to ask questions about the core issue.
Many journalists — at least those who can think beyond their own liberal tribalism — must feel uneasy about something that the American people aren’t often told.
It’s not the cozy journalistic roasts or singing of ditties, either.
It is the corrosive yet symbiotic relationship between Beltway journalism and the modern American kemalists of the vast federal bureaucracy.
It is a relationship very much like that of the tiny African oxpecker and the giant rhinoceros. The oxpecker, a humble bird, picks the ticks from the great rhinoceros’s back. The two species don’t question why one provides ticks and protection and the other picks the ticks for nourishment. They’re happy together, the one feeding ticks and the other eating them.
Presidents come, presidents go.
But in official Washington, journalists and bureaucrats are the ones that remain. And lately, it has become easier to envision them as they must have been in their past lives, as clerks of Byzantium or Rome, cleaving to the state, chattering on about the virtues of the emperors, desperate to defend their place and perks in that world.
A free and vigorous press is critical to the keeping of our republic. And every president must be challenged.
Journalists are good at uncovering hidden facts and hating lies, and worrying stories out of dark holes like the terriers we are.
Yet when it comes to self-examination over what has happened in America over the past several years, journalism has been lacking, almost willfully blind. From Trump’s defeat of the Washington political establishment — first the Republican Party and then the Democrats — journalism has been unable to see its own flaws.
During the last election, a great, obscene wound was exposed for the American people to see. It was the collusion between elite Beltway journalists and the Democratic National Committee, and it was exposed in WikiLeaks.
That hasn’t been dealt with. It hasn’t really been seriously addressed, except in binary, predictable, partisan fashion.
But the essence of the thing has been skipped over, with news organizations talking about going to war for the truth. It has been allowed to fester, infecting the one thing that is vital for journalism to do its job: credibility.
At the Chicago Tribune, where I work, many fine quotes about journalism have been carved into the walls of the beautiful, old Tribune Tower lobby.
One of my favorites is this one: “Where there is a free press the governors must live in constant awe of the opinions of the governed.”
Notice that it does not mention journalists dancing or singing for the royals, or what happens when credibility is damaged.
There is no mention of symbiosis with a vast bureaucracy. And no mention of pithy ditties.