Dining with Your Foes

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Every spring, when reporters in Washington lay down their pens and their cameras and attend a series of banquets with White House officials, government bureaucrats and politicians, there's always hand-wringing afterwards that the press corps is yukking it up with the very people they're supposed to be pursuing for the truth.

Two days ago, The New York Times said it would no longer take part in such events.

Frank Rich, in his weekly column, called them "a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era," and said they illustrate "how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media."

Wait a minute, the Boston Herald said today in an editorial: "Has there ever in the history of this nation not been a 'propaganda-driven White House' ... one which will use the tools at its disposal to advance its agenda? Gosh, bet Bill Clinton never thought of that!"

But Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, posted a column today saying it's "good news" that The Times is opting out of the "bloated and compromised" correspondents' dinner.

President Bush is no friend of the media, and he has dismissed its watchdog role. By doing that, though, he broke "the consensus that created the modern White House press corps," Rosen said. "One small but highly symbolic part of the consensus was the correspondents' dinner, and this is why it matters that the New York Times has quit the event."

In his column, Rich wrote that the press enabled the administration to pull off "stunts from the manufactured threat of imminent 'mushroom clouds' to 'Saving Private Lynch' to 'Mission Accomplished.'"

You remember "Mission Accomplished." That was the backdrop four years ago today when Bush announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

Rich wrote that there was an even "more egregious White House propaganda" effort to portray the death of former footballer Pat Tillman in Afghanistan as a heroic act in the face of the enemy, when in fact he was shot by a fellow American.

The White House, Rich wrote, "apparently decided to join the Pentagon in maintaining that lie so that it could be milked for P.R. purposes on two television shows, the correspondents' dinner on May 1, 2004, and a memorial service for Tillman" two days later in San Jose, Calif.

I covered that memorial service for The New York Times, and I was one of the reporters who, without anything else to go on, unknowingly repeated the Army's lies. I used the Pentagon's official statement that Tillman "was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces," and that he had protected his team "without regard to his own safety."

It's refreshing that The Times, at least, is trying to distance itself from the clubby atmosphere that sometimes lets those kinds of lies become "truth."

Last year, the guest speaker at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner was Stephen Colbert, the comedian who coined the word "truthiness" to describe the administration's approach to inconvenient facts.

But Colbert turned the tables on the White House press corps, calling them "stenographers" and "clowns."

This year, the comedian of choice was the innocuous Rich Little, who calls himself "basically a Republican."

He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the organizers of the event had made clear "they don't want anyone knocking the president."

"I won't even mention the word 'Iraq,' " Little promised.

"But for the White House press corps to instruct Little not to 'knock' the president smacks of a kind of censorship, from the very people that we've placed in the front line trenches of free speech," William Bunch wrote in a column in the Philadephia Daily News. "America desperately needs a press corps that's more eager to offend the White House, not less."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan