Does the White House Correspondents Dinner erode national media's credibility?

Tonight, the celebrities of national politics and of Beltway media will gather together to bury the hatchet for a few hours, and act like … celebrities.  The White House Correspondents Dinner, often called “nerd prom,” used to act as a release valve for the media and the politicians they cover, giving both sides an opportunity to connect on a more-relaxed personal level.  The celebrity aspect has gotten worse, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw complained this week, when actual celebrities started showing up:

Last year, Brokaw became one of the biggest critics of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner after he saw Washington buzzing around and about the troubled Hollywood actress, who was a guest of Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren.

“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan,” Brokaw told POLITICO during a recent interview in his office in the NBC News Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York. “She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break.” …

[H]e made a point to, seemingly out of nowhere, bash the WHCD on “Meet the Press” just one week after the soiree, saying it was “time to rethink” the occasion since it, in his words, “separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically.”

“One of the reasons that I wanted to raise it on ‘Meet the Press’ — and I told [host] David [Gregory] beforehand, ‘I’m going to look for an opportunity to do that,’ is that we were at a point in Washington where the country had just kind of shut down on what was going on within the Beltway,” Brokaw told POLITICO.

“They were making their own decisions in their own states, in their own communities, and the congressional ratings were plummeting,” he added. “The press corps wasn’t doing very well, either. And I thought, ‘This is one of the issues that we have to address. What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country? Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?’ And what comes through the screen on C-SPAN that night is the latter, and not the former.”

What’s another definition of “a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles”?  Celebrities, no? Brokaw warned that the pursuit of celebrity was antithetical to the mission of the media:

“I think any organization … has to have a kind of self-policing instinct and what we’re doing with that dinner, as it has been constituted for the past several years, is saying, ‘We’re Versailles. The rest of you eat cake,'” he explained to Politico.

Brokaw feels the event has become less about the White House press corps — which is its intended purpose — and more about the who’s who in attendance. And, in his opinion, it’s simply undignified and has gone “downmarket.”

“There was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom than there is [at] what I’m seeing on C-SPAN there,” he said.

My friend Tommy Christopher argues that Brokaw is hardly one to complain about attention-seeking, being at the top of the media food chain, and that the dinner serves a purpose:

Even that calculation requires you to accept the premise that the dinner carries any negative impact, beyond offending the sensibilities of Tom Brokaw. I’d like to note that I have nothing but the utmost respect and affection for Tom Brokaw. It was one of the top ten thrills of my life to meet Mr. Brokaw at the White House, and to have him recognize me (even if it was only because I live-tweeted my heart attack). His sensibilities are very important to me, but everyone always thinks baseball was better when they were a kid, and Mr. Brokaw’s frame of reference as a White House reporter dates back to the mid-seventies.

Furthermore, when he imagines John or Jane Q. America being put off by White House reporters rubbing elbows with rich celebrities once a year, he’s doing that as a rich celebrity. Nobody ever thinks to ask John and Jane Q. America what they think about the glitz factor of the dinner, but we do know it makes more of them tune in. Maybe it’s just to sneer at us, but maybe some of them tune in to see Kim Kardashian, and come away slightly more engaged with the political media. Maybe the already-engaged tune in to enjoy the night vicariously, the one night of the year when Mark Knolleris as likely to be recognized as Justin Bieber.

Most White House reporters are not rich celebrities themselves, and do an incredibly hard, thankless job, and they enjoy the one night a year on which they get much-deserved recognition. Just ask them. One year, I also decided to guilelessly ask some of the celebrities in attendance why they wanted to go to the dinner, and a few got a little offended, as if the event itself wasn’t worthy. For every celeb who just wants to be seen, there are several others who really take an interest in what we do, and who we do it to. As Ed Henry points out every year, the WHCD is also a charity event that awards needed scholarships to aspiring young journalists.

Tommy’s Mediaite colleague Noah Rothman disagrees.  Although he acknowledges that the event “serves a number of good purposes,” the media has a particular interest in enhancing its credibility — and the celebrity-seeking behavior of “nerd prom” accelerates an already-rapid erosion in that quality:

The media’s credibility is in free fall. The reliable headline emerging from Gallup’s annual survey of Americans designed to measure their trust in the media is that mistrust of the Fourth Estate has reached a “record high” — three times in as many years, in fact. 60 percent of all adults in 2012 said they do not trust the media. Only 8 percent of respondents said they have a “great deal” of trust in the news media. This is a crisis by any standard. The public no longer trusts the product that is being produced.

Avid consumers of news, particularly political news, now believe they have to consume journalism as a Kremlinologist of another era would parse the statements of Soviet bureaucrats in order to divine their true meaning. What is important is what is not said, the phrasing of sensitive topics, or how descriptive adjectives are employed which determine who has fallen out of favor within that close-knit institution. The USSR may be gone, but Kremlinology lives. Indeed, regular news readers pride themselves on their ability to decode the political press. Journalists deride this instinct as paranoia, and they may have a point. But they ignore the feedback of their customers at their peril.

It is in this environment that the pretentious artificiality of the WHCD takes place. This month, E! Entertainment network announced that they would livestream the red carpet at the WHCD on Saturday night for the first time. The nexus of celebrity, journalist, and politician is finally complete. The home of Keeping Up With The Kardashians finally finds the WCHD to be worthy of coverage. A dubious honor, to say the least.

Few institutions trade on their credibility like the political media does. Some would cheer the surrender of their credibility in order to achieve some measure of celebrity, but they are not joined by Mr. Brokaw.

I’m on the fence on this one.  The credibility issues of national-media outlets arise from the way they report the news rather than the manner in which they parade on this red carpet once a year.  However, Rothman’s point about the Kardashian connection, along with Brokaw’s complaint about Lohan, reveals that at least part of the former problem is revealed in the latter — a focus on aggrandizing one’s self (and one’s own agenda) rather than focusing on reporting the news and the actual facts.  I don’t think the media can solve the first problem by merely canceling the event, but the fact that “nerd prom” continues to expand into the realm of reality-TV entertainment should have the WHCA rethinking its priorities.

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