Pressed: Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

by David Schneider

Last Saturday night, over dinner and drinks, the President of the United States was overheard saying:

Michael Steele is in the house tonight. Or as he would say, 'In the heezy.'


For the last time, Michael, the Republican Party does not qualify for a bailout. Rush Limbaugh does not count as a 'troubled asset.

That's right. At the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama killed. American humor in the commercial media, over the last decade, has largely trended toward the coarse and snarky, so Obama's delivery – mature, intelligent, and martini-dry with a hip-hop twist – was thoroughly (in a word laden with meaning) disarming. (Even as he reaffirmed Michelle's right to bear arms.)

Disarming, because journalists and Big Media – in a crisis for survival – are now reckoning with their role in the great failures of the Bush Administration, in the failures of the economy, and the failures of their own profession. All are connected. And as Obama was happy to take the heat, as well as dish it (“Sasha and Malia are not here tonight. They're grounded. You can't just take a joyride to Manhattan.”) – because he took responsibility – he opened the possibility for the press corps to say to one another, like Hardy berating Laurel (though with a sheepish grin), “Well, that's another fine mess you've gotten us into.”

The American press might have been on “suicide watch,” as Frank Rich wrote yesterday, since Stephen Colbert's monologue three years ago (surely a critical event in media history). But the news industry had been in a severe depression long before Wall Street laid its latest egg.

Print newswriting methods are like the internal-combustion engine: their basic mechanics and operating principles have been little altered for a hundred years. For pistons, gears, sparkplugs and the carburetor, journalists have the lede, the quote, the counter-quote, vocabulary set and wordcount. They're all housed in an engine-block called the inverted pyramid, a structure whose wide use in American journalism dates back to the mid-19th century. This structure has its essential uses, but I think it also has, over the long-term, determined the way we receive, process, and use information, with negative aspects.

The lede, as they call it in the biz, is the one-sentence lead paragraph that provides the who, what, when, where and how of the immediate event under discussion. That's the broad top of the inverted pyramid. Descending into the story, we encounter context and detail and background, so that, theoretically, the least important details are at the bottom and even the most casual or harried news-reader can grab the most important news of the day.

Trouble is, in the modern world, events are wildly complicated. And the news, that is, the tip of the iceberg by which we call the newest new development – driven by the economics of the “scoop” – is often confused with the most important overall story, by the very nature of this information structure.

In other words, the news and what's really happening are not necessarily the same thing – although in our reading of the news, as quickly as we do, we may subcognitively conflate the two. The inverted pyramid, while intending to convey information efficiently for the headline reader, only has real utility for those who follow stories.

In investigating Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein ran up against the limitations of this structure: small articles over here, small articles over there, the latest indictment, the most recent subpoena. They owed their ultimate success to the Washington Post's editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, and publisher Katharine Graham (surely two of the great Americans of the 20th century), who risked not only the paper's reputation, but also its profitability, by publishing articles that attacked Nixon at the zenith of his popularity. They insisted that readers follow the story – and surmount the very obstacles that the journalistic profession itself had placed in the way of successful narration.

Bradlee and Graham had the foresight and tenacity to read beyond the lede.

To interpret the news, we were once told, “Read between the lines.” Decades of fill-in-the-blanks and multiple-choice tests in our nation's schools, however, have proven to be inadequate means of teaching reading comprehension and critical thinking. The speed and volume of information assaulting us, and the continual triage we must execute in order to function in our lives, means that we have become a nation of headline-readers. You can't read between the lines if you haven't reached the second.

It's apparent now, the truth of the old adage, “A democracy gets the government it deserves.” The hallmarks of American society during the '90s and '00s had been intellectual disengagement, physical fitness, superannuated adolescence, and empty talk – and we managed to acquire (elect seems too strong a word to use here) a president who acted like us. And for all its incompetence and nefariousness, the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party was, for a time, highly successful in controlling the media. Derrida said, “There is nothing outside the text,” and critical theory asserts that language is a study of power relations. As often happens, the weaker the grasp on power, the more aggressive are the attempts to consolidate it – and the Bush Administration, using this headline-deep approximation of poststructuralism, openly claimed the ability, and undertook a strategy, to construct its own “reality.” America had its intellectual incuriosity used against itself, and in the main was too intellectually incurious even to interrogate that mortifying assertion.

Step one in this strategy of media control had already been taken care of, on its own, by market forces – the consolidation of news and entertainment under the large conglomerate corporation. As early as 2002, Frank Blethen, the publisher and CEO of the Seattle Times Co., said, “Our democracy is far more fragile than we'd like to admit. And the concentration of our media in large, public companies is posing one of the greatest threats ever to its survival.”

Now, one thing business – and thus a business-oriented government –learned from Hollywood is that no matter how shoddy your product, you still have a good chance of turning a profit with a strategically planned, widely disseminated marketing campaign. The eight-year long Bush presidential campaign (“administration” seems too strong a word) was able to combine a deft understanding of market forces, American intellectual incuriosity, and Clintonian spin in an attempt to monopolize the market of ideological marketing.

Condemn journalists for “left-wing bias,” hold the 4th Estate in contempt, and exploit television news's profit-based valuation of entertainment over journalism. Neuter critical press by denying access, plant government-paid “journalists” and “commentators” in the pool, counter-attack your critics with slanders of un-Americanism (a page out of McCarthy's book), combine business with pleasure in the Beltway cocktail circuit (a page out of the business handbook) and adopt a stance of seclusion and secrecy (a page out of Nixon's book), rendering the only uncontrovertible facts capable of being printed into direct quotations of spin: “The Bush Administration said X today…” If language constructs reality, and our educational system made critical thought into a rare – yet bizarrely devalued – commodity, to the uncritical headline- and lede-reading American, “Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, the Bush Administration said today” becomes “Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

Thinking critically now, I'm not sure Frank Rich is entirely correct when he posits Stephen Colbert's sack of the News Establishment as the crucial date for the Decline and Fall of the Media Empires. I believe it was only the second of three acts. I think the first unmistakable sign of the Fall was the failure of the entirety of the American press to adequately examine Colin Powell's address to the United Nations, in which he “made the case” for the Iraq War. He did no such thing, and even a mediocre attorney could punch holes in it the size of a Mack Truck on cross-examination. But the press relied on Powell's reputation, just as credit agencies relied on the reputation of financial institutions without investigating and interrogating the constituent parts of mortgage bundles. And we relied on the reputation of our media, without interrogating it. Even people strongly opposed to the war checked the totality of their opposition for a moment, thinking, “Well, if the New York Times bought it, they must know something we don't…maybe…”

This colossal failure of the mainstream media directly led to the explosion of blogs and online media that now threatens the totality of the established 4th Estate. Someone had to watch the watchdog because as starving mutt knows all too well, you can't bite the hand that feeds you.

When history becomes farce, and all the political media become courtiers at Versailles, only the court jester has transgressive license to oppose power with truth. In hindsight, however, Colbert's evisceration of the media lapdogs appears to me merely the equivalent of the Soothsayer whispering in Caesar's ear, “Beware the Ides of March.” I mark the coup de grace as the broadcast and commentary of the Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, it became clear that electoral drama was throwing Big Media a ratings lifeline. The media establishment had a vested interest in keeping the horserace a carnival ride. I watched, flabbergasted, as Palin ran on – and on – in arabesques of incomprehensibility wreathed around substanceless, talking-point zingers. I continued to watch, dumbfounded, as the cadres of cable bloviators lauded the image of her performance – because they, too, had created entire careers around image and substance-challenged zingers.

“Surely,” I thought, waking up the next morning, “this madness will end.” No such luck. The early newsfeeds and initial reports merely cut-and-pasted the cable commentators, lauding Palin's chirpy loopy logorrhea as a creditable performance in the gladiators' arena.

But then a strange thing happened on the way to the Forum. As the clock turned to noon, reader comments began to accumulate across the Web. “You've got to be kidding me,” they said. What had been arcane numbers on a balance sheet now had the force of the vox populi. “We're no longer buying what you're selling us,” America said to the media, and by the day's end the public achieved the courage to challenge and overwrite the opinion-makers.

As of Sunday, the members of the press who managed to write through their hangovers described the genius of Obama's Saturday Night Live act and noted the sheer audaciousness of some of the jokes. Very few, however (the Huffington Post, an online publication, being one of them) reported Obama's candid words to the press corps. Suddenly, the comedy routine was a Constitutional law lecture, and after eight years of the Executive Branch regarding journalists with contempt – in part, because of their own spinelessness – it was nothing short of astonishing to hear these words from Obama, which I'll quote in full:

“It's a time of real hardship for the field of journalism. And like so many businesses in this global age, you've seen sweeping changes in technology and communications that lead to a sense of uncertainty, and anxiety, about what the future will hold. Across the country there are extraordinary hardworking journalists who have lost their jobs in recent days, in recent weeks, in recent months. And I know that each newspaper and media outlet is wrestling with how to respond to these changes, and some are struggling simply to stay open. And it won't be easy. Not every ending will be a happy one.

But it's also true that your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy. It's what makes this thing work. Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had the choice between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter. And clearly Jefferson never had cable news to contend with [laughter], but: the central point remains: a government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts, is not an option for the United States of America. [applause] I may not agree with everything you write, or report, I may even complain – or more likely Gibbs will complain – from time to time about how you do your jobs. But I do so with the knowledge that when you are at your best, then you help me be at my best. You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people to do our jobs better, by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and falling into easy political games that people are so desperately weary of. And that kind of reporting is worth preserving. Not just for your sake, but for the public's. We count on you to help us make sense of the complex world and tell the stories of our lives the way they happen. We look to you for truth, even if it's always an approximation [laughter].

This is a season of renewal and re-invention. That is what government must learn to do, what businesses must learn to do, and what journalism is in the process of doing. And when I look out at this room, and think about the dedicated men and women whose questions I've answered over the last few years, I know for all the challenges this industry faces it's not short on talent, or creativity, or passion, or commitment; it's not short of young people who break news or the not-so-young who still manage to ask the tough ones time and time again. These qualities alone will not solve all your problem, but they certainly prove that the problems are worth solving. And that is a good place to begin.”

Obama's voice fell as he spoke those final words, and in that falling voice he spoke a hard but necessary truth: the government may well be unable to help the field of journalism, as necessary to the nation as the auto industry, or the financial industry, and perhaps more deserving of relief than either of the two. Because the failure of the media, and its role in the larger failures of American business and government, was due to its overly close relationship to both.

Frank Rich, yesterday in The Times, was exercised about the terrifying attrition of journalists – of the professionals who actually go out and hunt the news – a far more expensive endeavor than opinionating. “Such news gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating – including that practiced here,” Rich demurs. But reporters alone, as we've seen, often neither have the time nor the structural ability (concerned as they are with basic facts) to make sense of the news, to police themselves, to locate the story within the story, to connect the dots. Frank Rich has been among the best of the best in doing so. There are many online outlets, including this one, that assist this task, a task made essential by the very limitations of journalism itself, and the speed with which information is consumed, without being digested thoroughly, by a public used to a diet of fast food.

The mainstream media spent most of 2007-8 dismissing online upstarts, “citizen journalists,” and “bloggers” – with the identical contempt once shown to it by the Bush Administration – right up until they were the ones receiving the pink slips. But in the current multifaceted crisis, which is in many ways a crisis of information, connectors of dots ought to be equally valued for their ability to, in Walter Benjamin's words, create a constellation of facts, for us to sail our ships by. The role that the online media plays should be integrated into a new idea of the journalistic profession. That has already begun happening, although opinionators, rather than dot-connectors, often seem to be the ones most often embraced by the ancien regime.

Following Obama, comedian Wanda Sykes took the podium, and began a harangue so pointed she might be painted, in the right-wing press, as Obama's featured attack dog. But it was then that I understood why the White House Correspondents' Dinner has its tradition of comedy. More than a few times, she crossed the line – even satirizing Rush Limbaugh, who went on record saying that he wanted Obama to fail, by calling him the 20th hijacker who missed the flight because he was so whacked-out on Oxycontin. I heard boos. She'd gone beyond the pale. “Oh, you'll be telling that one tomorrow,” she promised, and she was right. Comedians, by nature of their job description, have to risk going beyond the pale: it's their job to connect the dots, to reveal the hard truths, to expand the envelope of the sayable, to speak the comedy of language and unclothe the constructed reality of it, to protect, defend, and champion the First Amendment, to go where even journalists fear to tread.