A Party While the World Burns

A Party While the World Burns

Last night I went to a reception for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It was my first time attending the event in any form since I moved to D.C. in 2009. I don’t know what I expected. It was much louder, chaotic and crowded than I imagined (and I was already prepared for it to be a bit of a mess getting in and out of). But nothing like the idea of the President of the United States, the First Lady and a gaggle of celebrities to bring out thousands on a rainy, cold spring evening.

But while there was the usual cocktail sipping and chances for the brainiac set to ogle “Jamie Lannister” and Gabourey Sidibe while having thrilling stare-downs with a game-faced Chanel Iman, 55-miles away in Baltimore, Md. protests were erupting over yet another black man’s death in police custody. This time 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a traumatic spinal injury and eventually died after an interaction with police officers who denied him medical aid. 

The protests, which began peaceful, devolved into a bit of a melee thanks to a few outliers, leading to some police cars being smashed and 12 arrests. It was as scene very familiar to what happened last year in my homeland of North St. Louis, County, in the city of Ferguson, Mo., when protests turned into regular clashes with militarized police in the late summer of 2014. Since most of Washington’s press corps were at the dinner — either attending it or covering it —  there was bound to be some criticism that the biggest night for D.C.’s press would also mean some of the biggest names in media wouldn’t be busy covering Baltimore.

Not all journalistic sins were equal though. Many publications, like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and of course, The Baltimore Sun, were all over the story because most publications have a large enough staff that if your heavy hitters are getting tipsy with Martha Stewart and Donald Trump you still have plenty of people left behind who can do the days’ (and nights’) work of getting the news out. And local news in Maryland were doing the strongest reporting of the night. It’s what they broke that others would use to draft their stories in the aftermath. Others though, like CNN, were much more egregious. CNN was doing wall-to-wall coverage of the dinner, coverage they had no interest in breaking into with the news from Baltimore.

Wrote David Zurawik in The Baltimore Sun:

I expected nothing of MSNBC with its commitment to exploitative prison reality programming on the weekends. But for CNN to set up shop here the way it did all week and then provide next to nothing when the real trouble starts is unforgivable.

Oh, the people on CNN’s empty-headed, Hollywood-style, studio show dedicated to the talking about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner made note of what wasn’t being covered in Baltimore, but they then excused it. In the best style of Hollywood spin, they reminded us of the scholarships the dinner provides. As if that justified their self-absorption and the channel’s lack of attention to a serious moment of civil unrest right down the street.

The White House Correspondent’s Dinner is a night of navel gazing. Most glitzy, self-involved parties are. Whether its the Grammys for musicians or the Oscars for actors, every industry likes to throw itself a party in honor of its own greatness. Journalists are no more immune from the lure of free drinks, an excuse to rent a tux and celebrities than the Average Joe. For the higher ups, maybe they get out a lot, but for most of the grunts who bogarted their way into an invite, this is pretty much it, the one day of the year you get to pat yourself on the back and remind everyone that without the news — for good or for bad — the world would be much more poorly informed … while also hounding celebrities. Where you complain about how much you hate the party and everything it stands for, yet you go anyway. At the dinner, the Washington press corps honored their colleagues who were retired after decades of covering politics and brought awareness to peers who’d been imprisoned for reporting the news abroad.

They also got drunk. And Donald Trump was there. The President told jokes. Michelle Obama’s hair was curly.

And their big, fancy party happened to be on the same night news was happening in Baltimore. And while more than 2,000 people died in Nepal. And everywhere. Because news is always happening. Good and bad. All the time.

Journalists don’t necessarily need a party. It’s a luxury. And it’s a luxury only awarded to those with connections to D.C.’s most lauded crew. It’s not like any the papers I worked for (The Bakersfield Californian and The Midland Reporter-Telegram) were out there yukking it up. Local papers, a dying industry despite the fact they are still very needed, are the ones who really matter when stories like Baltimore or Ferguson happen. My hometown paper The Post-Dispatch rightfully won a Pulitzer this year for their photography around the protests over Michael Brown’s death. And, of course, all the best coverage of what happened in Baltimore came from The Baltimore Sun and local news stations in Maryland.

Local news matters. Even if the local news can’t always afford to throw itself a party when it feels unloved.

And the Washington press corps, despite this indulgence, is also necessary. It’s all necessary. Which is why we get mad at CNN for not breaking coverage, and why we worry that if everyone is at a party while the world is burning, will the fire make the 11 o’ clock news?

It made the local news. It made social media. Brietbart gave it this inflammatory headline. Eventually CNN was like “hey, maybe we should say something?” It’s easy to focus on the big targets, but cable news is not all news. The Washington press corps is not the only group of journalists in the world. There were those still doing the good work of getting the word out, the ones who have always done the good work of getting the word out. National news gets their news from local news, and local news was there.

No one getting tipsy last night could do their job today without them.

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