White House Correspondents’ Dinner is creepy propaganda

It’s great fun to attend the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner.

You get to dress up, drink, eat fancy food, and keep an eye open for celebrities and famous news faces. When I went in 2012 as a guest of the Denver Post, I saw Kevin Spacey and Lindsay Lohan. I searched in vain for Greg Gutfeld. I almost ran right into Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano because I was distracted by Sen. Rand Paul.

Yet besides basking in the reflected glitter of Hollywood-types, and the heady feeling of being special for an evening, the dinner is a nasty, creepy, propagandistic affair that becomes more embarrassing every single year.

The White House Press corps turned 100 this year, and their dinners began in the 1920s. The proceedings have generally followed the same formula of too-cute ribbing by and to the president, and then the passing out of press awards that nobody remembers by the time the next course arrives.

It’s a bizarre, backwards, display — a suddenly honest picture of the press in America on the day they out-and-out admit that they like Democrat presidents, wussily tolerate Republican ones, and on most days fail to challenge powerful people as long as they keep their access. We criticize them for this social-climbing moment, and we let them half-ass their jobs for the rest of the year.

On Saturday, comedian and actor Joel McHale took his turn as host. In the recent past, comedic standbys such as Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and Seth Meyers have oh, so gently poked at our president. Once again, the roast of President Obama was so low-heat the attendees probably got salmonella.

McHale made exactly one pointed joke at the president — a fumbling one about Guantanamo Bay being still open. The rest of his speech was bad, Hollywood banter. He mocked Kim Kardashian and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but let Obama alone.

There is something unsettling about seeing the biggest names in media, plus the odd Hollywood star dying to look smart and informed, walking down a red carpet, posing like it’s the Oscars, but instead of fawning over Jennifer Lawrence’s charming antics, they fawn over the most powerful man in the world.

With rare exceptions — Stephen Colbert’s heroically awkward turn hosting in 2006, during which the room was filled with a lot more painful sounds than eager laughter, and to some extent Jimmy Kimmel’s turn as host in 2012 during which he made marijuana prohibition and Eric Holder gun-running jokes! — the presidents get off easy.

More painful still, they also get to try their hands at playing the wit. Sometimes their humor is a disturbing reminder of their own power: George W. Bush memorably quipped about searching in vain for Saddam’s WMDs one year, and in 2009, well before the assassination program officially existed, Obama made an ill-advised stab at a joke about using a drone on the Jonas Brothers.

But that’s not many people’s problem with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The most telling critique is not the one the asks why the press deserve one night off from being watchdogs of power when they…don’t actually do that on most of the other 364 days a year. No, the best critique is the when very serious journalists like Tom Brokaw bemoan the presence of Lohans, Kardashians, or Jessica Simpsons.

Those airhead guests sully by their very existence the reporters’ important task of clapping at every single thing the president says, them patting themselves on the back for being basically Woodward and Bernstein. Hollywood, they say, is the problem reporters are now too distant. It’s not the president, it’s that this was hashtag-nerdprom, and now it’s too sexy.

That uncomfortable shade to the proceedings remained the same as ever. Obama, using his slightly above average comic timing and overrated charm, crossed the usual quips off his list: 1) Kenya joke, 2) ribbing of Fox News and relevant right-leaning politicians 3) topical cable news humor (Cliven Bundy and CNN’s missing airline obsession), and 4) Oh, I watch the same shows as you! references to Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones.

The president also made the obligatory unfunny joke that cut a little too close to home. This year, after Edward Snowden, the AP wiretapping scandal, and a cascade of other issues that should have made the press into snarling watchdogs, Obama joked “Colorado legalized marijuana this year, an interesting social experiment. I do hope it doesn’t lead to a whole lot of paranoid people who think that the federal government is out to get them and listening to their phone calls.”

Hi-larious, right? Nope. But then, it’s not funny in person either. I found in 2012 that to be in the same room as hundreds of people clapping for and delighting in the president is a singularly alienating experience.

When I expressed displeasure in Obama’s mid-level wit being greeted by the press and celebrities with howls of laughter and sycophantic applause, the Village Voice included my post in their right-wing round-up and pompously suggested, “Maybe entertainment news reporting, or entertainment, isn’t her thing.” Oh, it is, but politicians by their very nature are not entertainment figures. Nor should they be.

It doesn’t matter if Obama is handsome, charming, or witty, but even if he is, he doesn’t get to be because he’s the president. To treat someone with the power of life and death over so many in their hands as if he’s a new Tiger Beat pinup — or, as at the Press Correspondents’ Dinner, like a hot new comedian — is fundamentally offensive.

Politicians want you to treat them like a guy you’d drink beer with. But if politics is indeed a necessary evil, we should have the decency to treat it with seriousness. Laughing at Obama as if he’s an apolitical figure is by its nature a creepy, elitist act. And the bottom of the list, last people in the world who should be treating the president that way is the American press.


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