Monday, May 09, 2005

Laura Bush's Mission Accomplished

The New York Times
Laura Bush's Mission Accomplished

AS we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Drudge Report and the second anniversary of the Jayson Blair scandal, American journalists are in a race with the runaway bride for public enemy No. 1. Newspaper circulation is on the skids, the big three network anchor thrones are as precarious as King Lear's, bloggers are on the rampage, and the government is embracing fake reporters and threatening to jail real ones. A Pew Research Center poll shows that Americans now trust the press less than every other major institution, from government to medicine to banks. We can only be grateful that the matchups didn't include pornographers or Major League Baseball.

Then - just when you think things couldn't get any worse - along comes the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

This is the black-tie Washington Hilton fete at which journalists mingle with sources and celebrities and play host to the president, who is then required to be "funny." This year's outing is already famous for a startling innovation: a first lady delivered a shaggy horse gag about masturbation for the first time in our history. (In public, anyway.) Watching the proceedings from the safe distance provided by C-Span, I was as impressed as everyone else by Laura Bush's slick performance. If the Friars can't book Susie Essman or Sarah Silverman for the dais of their next roast, Mrs. Bush would kill.

It's the press's performance that is discomforting. Once these dinners were just typical Washington rubber-chicken fare, unseen on television and unnoticed beyond the Beltway. That began to change in 1987 when Michael Kelly, then a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, invited as a guest Fawn Hall, the glamorous mystery woman in the Iran-contra scandal. Over the years, Kelly's amusing prank has metastasized into a pageant of obsequiousness and TV Land glitz, typified by this year's roster of A-list stars from the 1970's (Goldie Hawn, Mary Tyler Moore) and C-list publicity hounds from the present (Jon Cryer, Ron Silver, the axed "American Idol" contestant Constantine Maroulis). As this gaggle arrives via red carpet, it's hard to know which is worse: watching reporters suck up to politicians in power or watching them clamor to rub shoulders with Joe Pantoliano.

Jonathan Klein, the new boss at CNN and a dinner attendee, hit the right note when, in an April speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, he made the "modest proposal" that the gala be canceled and that the White House Correspondents' Association "instead spend that time and energy creating standards - and enforcing them - for those who would call themselves White House correspondents." He meant Jeff Gannon, who masqueraded as a reporter at White House news briefings for two years before it was discovered that his news organization was a front for G.O.P. activists and that his most impressive portfolio had been as a model in ads for an escort service. But there's a bigger issue here than Mr. Gannon. The Washington press corps' eagerness to facilitate and serve as dress extras in what amounts to an administration promotional video can now be seen as a metaphor for just how much the legitimate press has been co-opted by all manner of fakery in the Bush years.

Yes, Mrs. Bush was funny, but the mere sight of her "interrupting" her husband in an obviously scripted routine prompted a ballroom full of reporters to leap to their feet and erupt in a roar of sycophancy like partisan hacks at a political convention. The same throng's morning-after rave reviews acknowledged that the entire exercise was at some level P.R. but nonetheless bought into the artifice. We were seeing the real Laura Bush, we kept being told. Maybe. While some acknowledged that her script was written by a speechwriter (the genuinely gifted Landon Parvin), very few noted that the routine's most humanizing populist riff, Mrs. Bush's proclaimed affection for the hit TV show "Desperate Housewives," was fiction; her press secretary told The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller that the first lady had yet to watch it.

Mrs. Bush's act was a harmless piece of burlesque, but it paid political dividends, upstaging the ho-hum presidential news conference of two days earlier in which few of the same reporters successfully challenged administration spin on Social Security and other matters. (One notable exception: David Gregory of NBC News, whose sharply focused follow-ups pushed Mr. Bush off script and got him to disown some of the faith-based demagoguery of the Family Research Council.) Watching the Washington press not only swoon en masse for Mrs. Bush's show but also sponsor and promote it inevitably recalls its unwitting collaboration in other, far more consequential Bush pageants. From the White House's faux "town hall meetings" to the hiring of Armstrong Williams to shill for its policies in journalistic forums, this administration has been a master of erecting propagandistic virtual realities that the news media have often been either tardy or ineffectual at unmasking.

It was only too fitting that Mrs. Bush's performance occurred on the eve of the second anniversary of the most elaborate production of them all: the "Top Gun" landing by the president on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. The Washington reviews of her husband at the time were reminiscent of hers last weekend. "This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command," David Broder raved on "Meet the Press." Robert Novak chimed in: "He looks good in a jumpsuit." It would be quite a while before these guys stopped cheering the Jerry Bruckheimer theatrics and started noticing the essential fiction of the scene: the mission in Iraq hadn't been accomplished, and major combat operations were far from over.

"We create our own reality" is how a Bush official put it to Ron Suskind in an article in The Times Magazine during the presidential campaign.

That they can get away with it shows the keenness of their cultural antennas. Infotainment has reached a new level of ubiquity in an era in which "reality" television and reality have become so blurred that it's hard to know if ABC News's special investigating "American Idol" last week was real journalism about a fake show or fake journalism about a real show or whether anyone knows the difference - or cares. This is business as usual in a culture in which the Michael Jackson trial is re-enacted daily on cable and the most powerful television news franchises, the morning triumvirate of "Today" and its competitors, now routinely present promotional segments about their respective networks' prime-time hits as if they were news.

No wonder many local TV news operations thought nothing of broadcasting government video news releases in which fake correspondents recruited from P.R. firms pushed administration policies; in some cases, neither the stations' managers nor journalists even figured out these reports were frauds. Now that public broadcasting is being turned over to Republican apparatchiks, such subterfuge could creep into the one broadcast news organization that, whatever its other failings, was thought to be immune to government or commercial interference.

The more the press blurs these lines on its own, the more openings government propagandists have to erect their Potemkin villages with impunity. "Our once noble calling," wrote Philip Meyer in The Columbia Journalism Review last fall, "is increasingly difficult to distinguish from things that look like journalism but are primarily advertising, press agentry or entertainment." You know we're in trouble when Jeff Gannon, asked about his murky past on Bill Maher's show on April 29, moralistically joked that "usually the way it works is people become reporters before they prostitute themselves." No less chastening was the experience of watching Matt Drudge, in conversation with Brian Lamb the same day, sternly criticize Fox for cutting off the final moments of the Bush news conference for Paris Hilton's reality series. When Mr. Drudge is a more sober spokesman for the sanctity of news than his fellow revelers at the correspondents' dinner, pigs just may start to fly.

Much as we all delight in the latest horse-milking joke, the happiest news in comedy last week was the announcement that "The Daily Show" will be spinning off a new half-hour on Comedy Central starring its "senior White House correspondent," Stephen Colbert. Make no mistake about it: the ratings rise of Jon Stewart's fake news has been in direct relation to the show's prowess at blowing the whistle on propaganda when the legitimate press fails to do so. The correspondents' dinner, itself a "Daily Show" target last week, could not have been a more graphic illustration of why, at a time when trust in real news is plummeting, there's a bull market for fake news that can really be trusted to know what is fake.

Speaking of Comedy Central and journalistic bloopers: Contrary to what I wrote here a week ago, the cable network did not bleep out the 162 repetitions of a four-letter expletive in an episode of "South Park," God bless 'em.

originally published May 8, 2005