Sunday, January 21, 2007

Party On!

It's the Sunday morning before the State of the Union address! The Sabbath-day gasbags are tanking up at the hot-air pumps in preparation for their weekly public rituals, so this seems to leave The Washington Post at loose ends in deciding what to put in the morning edition. The result seems to have been the decision to focus on the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), scheduled for April 21. (God forbid that they should cover any "fresh news." I check the entire home page for any sign of a follow-up story about the Dink assassination in Turkey. As far as I could tell, it was entirely absent; and that, dear reader, is why I feel it is more important to include Al Jazeera English on my "What I Read" list and not bother with The Washington Post!) However, lame this story may be, one can always mine the discourse.

Since the first rule of discourse is, "Context is everything," context is the best place to begin. The WHCA annual dinner is sort of the Friar's roast for the political set. (The White House, itself, is the subject of the roast and is usually represented by the President himself.) This used to carry more weight when there was a lower supply of political humor, only a few columnists, cartoonists, and stand-up comedians, in other words before Comedy Central institutionalized political humor with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (which now seem to command far more attention than any of the "straight news" programs on the more ostensibly "serious" networks). Last year the WHCA recognized this sea-change by inviting Colbert to host the dinner. Colbert rose to the occasion with his usual no-prisoners style and seems to have been best remembered for comparing the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster. Since one of my favorite topic in my last blog was the power of satirical thinking (in an age where too many seem to have lost the ability to read satire), I figure that there are any number of fascinating ways to read this particular quip (not to mention Colbert in general). Unfortunately, this turned out to be too much for the WHCA (although I have yet to find an account of how the President reacted); so they decided that controversy would not be part of the recipe for this year's roast.

The result was to invite Rich Little to host this year's dinner, a Las Vegas impersonator who is probably totally unknown to the under-40 set. Now, in fairness to the WHCA, according to their current president, Steve Scully (C-SPAN), Little was far from their first choice. He came in behind David Letterman, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, and Martin Short. As far as I can tell, the real news story here is that all four of these guys turned down the gig. The Washington Post, however, decided not to go down this path but at least was willing to report that Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, did choose to go there. Rieder's reading of the chain events is that it is time to scrap the dinner itself, and he is admirably blunt about it (as the Post reported).

After the Colbert controversy last year, and an earlier one in which Bush joked about not finding weapons of mass destruction, Rieder wrote that such press-politico events reflect the "smugness" and arrogance of the news media, suggesting that they are "part of a wealthy elite, completely out of touch with ordinary Americans."

The hiring of "a controversy-free" Little underscores the point, he says: "Do we really need a neon sign to proclaim the coziness of the White House press corps and the White House's occupant? It's really hard for me to understand making a decision like this, particularly so close to the WMD debacle. The dinner must go."

In other words, to continue one of my favorite themes, Rieder uncovered the metanarrative behind the events of the story. That metanarrative is about the fact that the relationship between the White House and the so-called "legitimate" media has become so corrupted that the general public has been drifting towards the satire of Comedy Central as a "primary" news source; and, just as denial has been a major White House strategy ever since we started ramping up our aggressive stance after 9/11, that strategy has been assumed by the WHCA as they attempt to exclude satire for their internal celebration of their own practices. So it is that from a relatively silly little narrative about satire we can read a more penetrating metanarrative about irony!

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