New book on Washington insider behaviors

Today is when the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner is held, when the cozy and incestuous relationship between the political and media class is on public display. The curtain that normally hides this and enables the media to portray itself as watchdogs of politicians is stripped away and we see that they are actually lap dogs, eager to be on good terms with those whom they are supposedly antagonistic towards.

This is not the only such occasion. There are many such insider schmoozing events, like the Radio and TV Correspondents dinner which produced the famous clip of NBC ‘News’ correspondent David Gregory as a backup dancer to Karl Rove.

It was only natural that celebrities from the world of entertainment would join this group since politicians and the media love to rub shoulders with them, and so the WHCA dinner has become a threesome of elite politicians, elite media, and elite celebrities. But sadly, standards have slipped and Tom Brokaw, the consummate insider, complains that the WHCA dinner is being ruined because the riff-raff of the entertainment world such as Lindsay Lohan are now being invited.

This mutual backscratching has become so blatant that some of its worst practitioners are apprehensive about a new book that is about to be published in a couple of months. It is called This Town: The Way it Works in Suck Up City by Mark Leibovich that, according to reports, threatens to expose these shenanigans in great detail by someone who was part of it.

Jim Newell of The New Republic, who has been tapped to review the book when it comes out, writes amusingly about the alarm in journalistic circles by what they see as the betrayal by one of their own who is threatening to embarrass all of them, and the pre-emptive measures they are taking in damage control.

Too bad our elite journalists are not more like University of Pennsylvania student Aakash Abbi who gave a spirited defense of the reasons why he recorded and then released to Mother Jones the comments made by Republican consultant Frank Luntz to a student group, where he criticized the party’s demigod Rush Limbaugh. Luntz complained that his comments were ‘off the record’.

Abbi writes:

[H]is request to be taken off the record was never one to which I acquiesced. The reporter who was present was right to oblige Luntz, but in a room filled with scores of independent students, “off the record” is not a Patronus charm. Luntz may have felt that he was invited to speak candidly by acclimation, but I disagreed entirely.

What I believe is a greater deterrent to discourse though, both on Penn’s campus and across America, is the all-too-common practice of protecting one’s personal interests at the expense of the national conversation. Just as the College Republicans do, I welcome the free flow of expression and ideas at Penn regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. But the best debate is an open and honest one. The best debate is one in which people speak freely and do not actively obscure their true beliefs.

Frank Luntz has made a very successful career out of advising Republicans on the content of their message. He was asked one of the most important questions of the day in terms of American politics (“what is causing extreme polarization between the parties?”), and refused to speak freely. Why? Because doing so may harm his commercial interest. And this attitude is at the root of the problem. If influential GOP figures like Frank Luntz truly believe that the party’s media kingmakers harm the national interest but refuse to say so for fear of backlash, they knowingly work against the spirit of open and honest debate.

Our elite media fall over themselves to enable public figures to keep their views private in order to maintain cordial relations with them. A major cause of the rot is the ease with which people are allowed to talk ‘off the record’ enabling them to advance an agenda without taking responsibility for it.


  1. jamessweet says

    Have you watched the Netflix series House of Cards at all? I’ve only watched the first few episodes, but I was struck by a scene early on that has relevance to this post… One of the characters is a young journalist who had previously been stuck doing mostly human interest stories and other busywork, who suddenly becomes a rising star when she gets unprecedented access to information from the series’ protagonist (he is, in fact, using her to leak information to achieve his own goals, but it works to their mutual benefit). As her career takes off, the paper she works for offers her the job of White House correspondent, a very prestigious position for such a young journalist. At one point she delivers an epic speech about how the job is just a bunch of kissing ass and writing down pre-packaged soundbites, with a dinner once a year so everybody can pat each other on the back and pretend they are doing real journalism (or something to that effect). heh, pretty cool.

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