Frank Rich on the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
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.