When Washington fiddled while Baltimore burned

Gradually, and over the course of the last two decades, the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner has evolved from a modest roast, in which reporter and subject let off a bit of steam, into an entertainment event. The self-effacing term “nerd prom” was not originally a dishonest attempt to strike an ironic tone, but rather a genuine effort to describe the paradoxical event and its unassuming attendees. No longer. Today, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is, like so much of what goes on inside the Beltway, a spectacle. Hollywood celebrities mingle with media celebrities, and on actual red carpets no less. A gaggle of photographers scramble to grab the best shots of their fellows, members of the same industry, as they file into another of the proliferating events that honor the craft of journalism. For the attendees, it must be quite an intoxicating experience.

This year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner was similar to most others; celebrities and journalists hobnobbed, the president told some well-timed but unmemorable jokes, after parties had been supplanted by late-night parties, Rachel Maddow made a mean martini. But this year was different in that the members of the media who attended and covered these events abdicated their responsibilities as journalists so freely, and while an event of such a critical magnitude was ongoing just a few miles away. As reporters, television stars, and White House officials mingled live on your television on Saturday night, the city of Baltimore descended into chaos.

On April 12, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man, was taken into custody by police after being pursued on foot by officers through a variety of housing complexes. Gray resisted arrest and sustained some injuries to his spinal cord during the process. Though he complained of shortness of breath, Gray was not properly buckled into the vehicle that transported him to the police station, and he did not receive timely medical care when he arrived. On April 19, Gray died.

What started as peaceful protests against the Baltimore Police Department evolved into something more violent on Saturday night, just as the Washington political establishment filed into the ballroom to attend their long-awaited gala. Thousands gathered in the city’s downtown area near Camden Yards. There, events took a turn for the violent as protesters smashed windows and damaged police vehicles.

“Saturday’s trouble began in the early evening, when a group of protesters, as many as 10 by some accounts, split from the main group as the City hall rally was breaking up and went on a rampage, throwing cans, bottles, and trash bins at police officers,” The New York Times reported, “and breaking windows in some businesses.”

“As the breakaway group reached Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Oriels were playing the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, it was met by police officers in riot gear,” the reported continued.

“Shut it down if you want to,” the president of the Washington D.C.-based group Black Lawyers for Justice, Malik Shabazz, told protesters on social media prior to the outburst. “Shut it down!” And the rioters led by a familiar but shadowy group of outside “agitators” did just that.

“Officials said 31 adults and four juveniles were arrested, and six police officers were hurt after several storefronts were vandalized and other properties were damaged in the waning hours of the Freddie Gray demonstrations,” WBAL reported.

Shockingly, the violence and property destruction was apparently condoned by the city’s mayor. “It’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”

It was an episode begging for media coverage. Recall how not merely reporters but flagship cable news anchors descended on Ferguson, Missouri, when anti-law enforcement demonstrations broke out there in August and again in November of last year. Remember how journalists like CNN’s Don Lemon embedded himself within a group of protesters and feigned effrontery when he was pushed back by riot police along with those protesters with whom he had aligned himself. Recount how MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was positioned so close to the violence that he was targeted by rock-throwing demonstrators.

It was not merely Ferguson where reporters fought for a front-row seat to the violence. Following a New York City grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, the journalistic establishment didn’t have to go very far to amplify the ensuing demonstrations beyond their reasonable proportion. When demonstrators were inexplicably allowed by that city’s sympathetic mayor to barricade the West Side Highway in protest, the news media was right there beside them.

So, where were the cable networks on Saturday night as Baltimore was rocked by violence? Telling their viewers to go to Twitter if they wanted to read the news.

“This is always about choices, right? I mean you know, you have to make a decision, what are you gonna do with this two hours of time. And we, you know, CNN made its decisions, and is sticking to its plan and so forth,” CNN political correspondent Errol Louis told the network’s viewers remorselessly.

He added that those anxious viewers will “find out all about what happened in the streets of Baltimore by this time tomorrow.” Have some patience, or go “find a live feed somewhere.”

“CNN was covering the WHCD and MSNBC was covering the WHCD and Fox was showing some already-taped crap,” The Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch noted before observing that those who attended the baseball game at Camden Yards were held in place as the violence escalated outside the stadium. “And it’s a perfect example of why the rest of the country is so sick of Washington, so hateful toward the press corps.”

The press has demonstrated a ravenous hunger for news stories involving young, disaffected, primarily African-American men lashing out violently at the police. They have shown a willingness to devote hours if not whole days to covering similar events. Editors have assigned reporters and flagship talent alike to travel great distances in order to cover those stories. But when one is occurring in the Beltway media’s backyard, they simply ignore it because it conflicts with the night in which they finally get their due.

That editorial instinct, one shared by virtually every media outlet, reflects a toxic level of self-veneration and an ugly disdain for the public this institution supposedly serves.

In the words of the mollycoddled student editors of Oberlin’s college newspaper, Saturday’s coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was the press’s “love letter to ourselves.” The members of an association that had not long ago embraced its corruption and venality would be humiliated by this display of callousness toward real suffering in defense of a customary and cherished privilege. But you aren’t hearing very much embarrassment this morning, are you?