Sunday, March 10, 2013

Celebrity dinners for politicians and media stars, and the sad state of Bob Woodward

I'm to the point that I just don't like to see the President appearing at celebrity press events where stars of the allegedly serious news media do high-level celebrity networking and listen to Presidents and aspiring Presidents do a comedy act. These events promote the notion that politics is mainly a variation of show business and deepen the already shamelessly deferential attitude that the national press shows toward politicians in good standing with the business Establishment.

This weekend, it was Gridiron Club Dinner 2013: Obama Pokes Fun At Self, Reporters (Reuters/Huffington Post) 03/09/2013.

Attending the Gridiron Club dinner, Obama made light of a recent back and forth between his administration and Woodward, the veteran Washington Post journalist whose reporting on the Watergate scandal helped bring down Richard Nixon's presidency.

"Can anybody tell me when an administration has ever regretted picking a fight with Bob Woodward?" Obama joked. "What's the worst that could happen?"

Woodward and White House economic adviser Gene Sperling had a public tussle that played itself out in a leaked email, in which Sperling told the veteran journalist he would regret taking a position on one of Obama's policies. Woodward suggested the move was an example of White House intimidation.

"Who knew Gene could be so intimidating," Obama joked about Sperling. "Or let me phrase it differently: who knew anybody named Gene could be so intimidating?"
Woodward received some well-deserved criticism and ridicule for being such a whiner and a schmuck around that incident.

But Woodward's claim was ridiculed not only because it was silly whining. It also reflected Woodward's go-with-the-flow brand of journalism, in which he tailors not only his analytic spin but his reporting according to changing Beltway Village fashion. Gene Lyons called out an important point in the Woodward flap in Ignoring The Sequester's Inconvenient Truths National Memo 03/06/3013, which is that Sperling was trying to correct Woodward from making a Republican-friendly claim that was not only factually wrong but embarrassingly obviously so:

Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor ... spent much of last week on national TV demonstrating that he can’t distinguish a warning from an apology.

"You do not ever have to apologize to me," Woodward had responded to an allegedly intimidating email from longtime White House source, Gene Sperling. "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."

Wow, that must have been scary! Faced with incredulity after the inoffensive email became public, Woodward alibied that he'd never exactly called it threatening.

Which begs the question of why he was talking about it on TV. Look, people frequently wander into newspaper offices describing government plots against them — often spelled out in all caps, with lots of red-ink underlining and rows of exclamation points. Most often they’re gently shown the door.

But I digress. Sperling's point was that Woodward was completely off base in saying President Obama had "moved the goalposts" by seeking to close tax loopholes enabling guys like Mitt Romney to pay lower income tax rates than his wife's horse trainers.

Could there be anybody in America who didn't know that?
Obama's not-especially-funny joke, at which no doubt the crowd laughed politely - shoot, this crowd may have thought it was hilarious! - actually flattered Woodward by suggesting that he was still some kind of go-getter investigative reporter. In fact, he is mainly known now for his hagiographic sketches of the powerful. Though in his various account of George W. Bush's Presidency, he eventually shifted from hagiography to safe criticism. Rick Perlstein sketches out the evolution of Bod Woodward's George W. Bush in Reading Bob Woodward The Nation 03/06/2013. He also summarizes how the Bob Woodward of the Watergate story is a very different figure that the Woodward of polite Presidential jokes:

All credit to David Folkenflik of NPR for having the presence of mind to invite us to turn to page 105 of All the President's Men to remind Woodward what a real White House threat sounds like: John Mitchell in September 1972 telling his partner Carl Bernstein that if The Washington Post published what it knew about Mitchell personally approving the payment of political spies, Post publisher Katherine Graham was "gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer."

They ran it anyway, of course. They ran it even though Richard Nixon’s re-election juggernaut was proving impermeable to Woodward and Bernstein’s ongoing Watergate full-court press, and many among Georgetown’s cocktail set had begun to consider the Post's ongoing indulgence of the story a bit of an embarrassing obsession, kind of the way a blogger like Glenn Greenwald is looked upon now. Because back then, Woodward had guts. He’s something different now: a barometer of Washington conventional wisdom, who more appears to say what he chooses to say based upon his continually evolving sense of who is up and who is down among precisely that same Georgetown cocktail set. ...

Continue reading Bob Woodward. But not the prose. You won't learn much from that. Read the man instead. That way you’ll learn what the people in power think about what you’re supposed to think.
But even though Woodward wasn't threatened, the Obama Administration has pursued the most drastic approach to Executive secrecy and prosecution of leakers of any Administration ever. Bradley Manning's treatment in military confinement, for which the officials responsible for it should be prosecuted as torture perpetrators, is facing decades of prison time under the prosecution the Obama Administration is bringing against him.

But the major media types who show up to chuckle at the President's bad jokes aren't boycotting the event because of Obama's treatment of Manning. And certainly not because of his push to shut down Wikileaks and arrest Julian Assange.

The Obama Administration has been making some real and substantial threats to the kind of investigative reporting that originally made Bob Woodward famous. (Though Gene Sperling's now-famous e-mail to Woodward was not one of them.) And this Gridiron Club Dinner gives them both Obama and the media bigwigs to pretend that it's all a big joke.

One more grim irony in this is that both the Bush and Obama Administrations gave Woodward extensive access to classified documents to write about the Obama White House when it benefited their PR spin. Yet neither the leakers nor Woodward himself are being subjected to the kind of treatment that Bradley Manning or Julian Assange are facing.

It may show that my sense of humor is declining. But the White House text of Obama's speech I find down right disturbing (Remarks by the President at the Gridiron Dinner 03/09/2013):

Before I begin, I know some of you have noticed that I'm dressed a little differently from the other gentlemen. Because of sequester, they cut my tails. (Laughter.) My joke writers have been placed on furlough. (Laughter.) I know a lot of you reported that no one will feel any immediate impact because of the sequester. Well, you're about to find out how wrong you are. (Laughter.)

Of course, there's one thing in Washington that didn't get cut -- the length of this dinner. (Laughter.) Yet more proof that the sequester makes no sense. (Laughter.) ...

But don't worry. We're all friends again in the spirit of that wonderful song. As you may have heard, Bob invited Gene over to his place. And Bob says he actually thinks that I should make it too. And I might take him up on the offer. I mean, nothing says "not a threat" like showing up at somebody's house with guys with machine guns. (Laughter.)
Yesterday, the same day he was joking with his pals in the press about how important people like themselves weren't affected by the sequester he and the Republicans agreed on back in 2011, he was giving his regular weekly address about how important it is to come up with a deal to pass the sequester. The White House titles the Saturday message End the Sequester to Keep Growing the Economy 03/09/2013 (transcript here):

I would say he's delivering very mixed messages.

But maybe I'm being too hard on him. He said in his supposedly serious message:

As Democrats and Republicans, we may disagree on the best way to achieve our goals, but I'm confident we can agree on what those goals should be. A strong and vibrant middle class. An economy that allows businesses to grow and thrive. An education system that gives more Americans the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future. An immigration system that actually works for families and businesses. Stronger communities and safer streets for our children.
He should have used that for his comedy routine in the evening. That might have gotten some genuine laughs. He could have thrown in that the Republicans also agrees that rain falls from the sky and that we can see stars at night.

There are other such events, the most egregious being the Nerd Prom, aka, the White House Correspondents Dinner coming up on April 27, sponsored by the White House Correspondents' Association. Comic Conan O'Brien will be the Master of Ceremonies. Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian are expected to be among the guests. (Josh Grossberg, Conan O'Brien to host White House Correspondents Dinner E! Online/NBC Entertainment 02/20/2013) Here is an undated press release at the website, "2013 WHCA℠ Dinner News":

Team Coco is coming back to Washington.

Conan O'Brien, the Emmy award-winning comedian and late night talk show host, will headline the annual White House Correspondents' Association’s annual dinner on April 27, 2013, it was revealed Wednesday by association president Ed Henry.

"Conan is one of television's most innovative and influential talents and I am absolutely thrilled that he has agreed to be this year's featured act," said Henry. ...

The President traditionally delivers his own set of jokes, poking fun at himself as well as his political opponents, before the comedian gets the podium. It's all in good fun and for a good cause.

The dinner is affectionately known as the "nerd prom" because it is a hit on C-SPAN. It draws a wide cross section of movers and shakers from the worlds of journalism, politics, as well as Hollywood all coming together for one night to help shine the spotlight on the next generation of journalists.

The event is also known for featuring some of the hottest names in comedy over the years, including when a boyish, 32-year-old O'Brien turned in a brilliant performance at the 1995 dinner. That was when O'Brien was starting his 16 year run as the host of "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" on NBC.
And this jolly event that bring "Team Coco" back to Washington is sponsored by the Very Serious People at the White House Correspondents' Association, the cutting edge of Beltway Village journalism that takes its adversarial role as the Fourth Estate of American democracy oh-so-very seriously.

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