The juxtaposition of the riots in Baltimore this weekend as “all-news” television networks delivered extensive coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Association’s soiree underlined the disconnect between the press and the rest of the country.
At one point, a CNN anchor suggested that people turn to Twitter for news about the Baltimore riots.
Philly.com called it “The night the news died.”
Liberal columnist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News made several good points. As the high and mighty gathered at the Washington Hilton, they forgot about the news less than an hour north on Interstate 95, which included the Baltimore mayor allowing a place for demonstrators to destroy stuff and 15,000 baseball fans being held hostage in Camden Yards.
“It was a death of an idea that had once thrived and then hobbled through its old age — that Big Media was something could drive the national conversation, that bringing graphic images and hard realities about the things that matter into America’s living rooms was their noble primary,” Mr. Bunch wrote.
Two years ago, I described the repugnant nature of the Washington dinner. The alleged reason for the affair, where 2,600 people strutted their stuff Saturday, was to provide about $86,000 in scholarships. Nevertheless, the executive director of the association reportedly makes $142,000, and the bash costs $700,000.
As I wrote back then, it’s time for the group to dump this event because it sends the wrong message to readers and viewers who rightly see the dinner as comforting the comfortable.
Peter Ingemi, a conservative Catholic analyst who is one of my favorite bloggers, put it even better.
“In living memory the reporter class did not mix in the same way with the elites as they do today. To be sure, the press had their cliques and their pecking order, but it was separate from that of the people they covered,” he wrote at DaTechGuy.com.
Mr. Ingemi argued perceptively that the legacy media don’t acknowledge the contribution that bloggers provide to the public debate.
“Not only does it shatter their own illusion of being the champions of the common man, but what’s the point of membership in an exclusive club if they let just anybody in?”
The right and the left agree: The White House Correspondents’ Association has become a complete mess — not only because of the ethical problems, but now because the media failed to turn their attention to more important news on the night of the party. Even President Obama didn’t say anything during his monologue.
In his insightful book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” media analyst Neil Postman underlined a key reason why television news tended to cover events such as the Washington press banquet rather than Baltimore.
“We are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value,” he wrote 30 years ago. “That is to say, news as pure entertainment.”
Journalists took off their tuxedos and gowns to head Monday to Baltimore, where the mayor and the media discovered that a serious problem existed. But the Washington news corps lost a lot of credibility this weekend — as if they had much left.
I remember a time when reporters were supposed to arrive at a social event in Cairo. No one showed up because riots were going on. All of us went to cover the story that day. We didn’t let a good time stand in the way of news.
And kudos to The Baltimore Sun for taking down its subscription walls and making the coverage on its website free. Classy.
• Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @charper51.