Sunday, May 01, 2005

Gossip from the White House Correspondents Dinner (Not really.)

For yet another year, I have not attended the White House Correspondents dinner. Instead, I spent the evening with a woman I really, really like. We went to see a play and rode around the city listening to Van Morrison. I can't provide any further details about the evening because her friend reads this blog.

For those who want to know more about the dinner, I'll leave that to Wonkette.

First, one note of interest regarding the Wonkette post. The details of First Lady Laura Bush's appearance at the dinner by Wonkette differs from that of most other media accounts in one major detail. The Wonkette account contains a joke supposedly made by the First Lady regarding her husband-- the President of the United States-- and a horse of his same gender. The joke itself is too tasteless to repeat here.

But the fact that it appeared in Wonkette and not elsewhere begs a question: Was this yet another example of Ana Marie Cox simply making something up, blending fact and fiction, as a means to lampoon (often quite well) the powerful? Or did Laura Bush indeed tell the joke in question, and most news organizations simply not report it because their readers might consider it to be offensive or tasteless? I will promptly research the question and then update this post. (Update: Laura Bush indeed make the comments in question-- M.S.W.)

In the meantime, Ana Marie Cox, through a spokesperson, has said Ms. Cox will personally address this issue at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute, before explicating further on the Charlie Rose show. The Charlie Rose show will examine how one can sound high minded in pursuing the low brow.

The White House Correspondents dinner, for those who know little about it, is a joyful celebration by the Washington media elite... of itself.

It's yet another example of why the media has lost the respect and trust of the public. There was once a time when being a journalist was about something more than whether or not you were invited to the Bloomberg party; to do your job meant learning your way around the file room of the country courthouse instead of the green room; the story was about those you covered instead of yourself; and your role was to uncover new facts instead of expressing opinions about things of which you knew nothing. And attitude was what you gave your editor rather than something you displayed on MSNBC. Those days are long gone. (Not that the good ol' days of journalism were really that good anyway, but that is for another time...)

George Will recently published a column in which he lamented the fact that we might be passing into a "post-journalism age", writing:

"If you awake before dawn you probably hear a daily sound that may become as anachronistic as the clatter of the horse's hooves on urban cobblestones. The sound is the slap of the morning paper on the sidewalk."

[In contrast, if you are reading this post, the sound that you are most likely hearing is clicking of your mouse.]

Will paints a bleak picture for those of us who believe that vibrant and independent newspapers are essential to democracy: "Circulation of daily newspapers is 55.2 million, down from 62.3 million in 1990. " Sixty percent of those 65 and older say that they regularly read a newspaper; 23% of those 18-29 read a daily newspaper.

Will also points out: "The combined viewership of the evening newscasts is 28.8 million, down from 52.1 million in 1980. The median age of viewers is 60. Hence the sponsorship of news programming by Metamucil and Fixodent."

George Will blames the public and their purported shallow nature for their paying less and less attention to people like George Will. That is not surprising. Anyone involved in a failed relationship usually blames the other party.

But if newspapers are going to flourish they might consider entering an already ongoing discussion in the public square as to how they might be themselves responsible for their own predicament. Those who run newspapers bounce around from the manic extremes of one day writing less for their readers than for the juries who award journalism prizes to then empaneling focus groups to figure out how to pander to their readers.

Newspapers do not have to pander to their readers so much as to engage them. The failure to engage their readers (i.e., writing for the juries of those journalism awards) results in their audience eroding further which leads them to pander to their readers (i.e., utilizing focus groups to determine how to bring back their alienated former readers). Pandering to their readers only leads to them alienating their most serious readers, leading to even further erosion of their circulation.

There are old school newspaper editors who take pride in the distance between themselves and their readers. They mistake engaging with their readers with pandering to them, only to end up having to pander to them anyway in desperately seeking their return.

I have had the good fortune for having written for and worked for some of the nation's leading newspapers and magazines. I could write a hundred front page news stories (which I did) without ever talking to, or engaging in any manner, with a single reader. That is not possible any longer if you want to write a blog like this one. And if is one of the reasons that many of the folks who used to read newspapers are instead reading this post now.

Writing a blog, I hear back from my readers almost immediately. Many of them often disagree with what I write, but are still respectful and appreciative. I quote from one post from a blogger, not because it is favorable to me, but because after having it read it, I felt better than if I had won a Pulitzer Prize. It makes me want to raise early in the morning and post again. And it is much more important than I win the respect of my readers-- such as this-- rather than any Pulitzer board. This person writes:

"There's tons of good learnin' to be gleaned [from this blog]. I've read about half his archive... I was thinking on it... comparing him to Wonkette... She actually has equal knowledge of the corridors of power, having once been the senior editor of the American Prospect, but she has put on a false persona of being a cynical prescient ingenue hipster. Waas does it so much more grown-up.... Wonkette, of course, will continue to be hot, because she doesn't require an attention span by the reader."

(The person who wrote the above is not a relative-- I swear!)

That I care more about my readers think rather than a Pulitzer jury is the reason that estranged readers of the Washington Post are (this very moment) reading this blog instead of the Post. Donald Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post, is also a former chair, and current member, of the Pulitzer board. In his role as the former, he might consider less worrying about trying to satisfy the later. Indeed, his dual roles only exemplify the insulatiry and remoteness of what was once a popular media evolving into an elite media. In the process, he might no longer have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for focus groups to learn how to pander to the readers he and his newspaper have lost. (To my many friends who work at the Post, lose the focus groups.) Instead, engage your readers in a meaningful way and on a regular basis and they might just someday return to you.

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