Pulling the plug on the White House Correspondents Dinner

If you have looked at the blogosphere in the past week you are probably already familiar with "Colbert-gate."

Stephen Colbert produced brilliant satire as featured speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner. No, wait. Mr. Colbert wasn't the slightest bit funny. No, wait. Colbert was funny but too edgy.

Who's right? Who knows, at least on the first two critiques? Humor is a personal thing. For every person who likes Colbert, the comedian behind The Colbert Report, Comedy Central's satirical send-up of conservative talk shows, there's probably one - maybe more - who enjoy the stylings of Larry the Cable Guy - he of the now scarily omnipresent "git-r-done."

And Colbert, love him or hate him, was exactly what you would expect at the April 29 event. He used his mock Bill O'Reilly persona and his trademark "truthiness" to beat-up on the president while pretending to be an ally. This is what he does Monday through Thursday at 11:30 p.m.

But that third criticism is troubling. Colbert was too edgy, too critical, too political? It was uncomfortable?

Since when is the press out to make things comfortable for this president - or any president for that matter? Well, not often, is the reply. But once a year everyone puts his or her hard feelings aside and sits down to have a good time, and Colbert's act didn't really fit with the evening.

There are a few easy solutions to this problem. Don't invite Colbert, for one. There are any number of comedians who don't deal in politics. But the better answer may simply be ending the event. There are a number of good reasons why the plug should be pulled.

First off, the correspondents dinner showcases two of this town's biggest psychological issues, its feelings that it is the center of the universe and its fear that no one really cares what happens here. The dinner is like prom as imagined by the debate team. The political geek set gets dressed up and glamorous and sits down to congratulate itself, but fearing it isn't cool enough on its own, media organizations try to score A-list celebrities from New York or Los Angeles to dine at their tables.

How many stories about this year's party mentioned that George Clooney and the rapper Ludacris were in attendance? The reporters here may not write for "People," but they raid its pages for red-carpet street-cred. It's sad really.

The bigger issue though, is the coziness of it all.

The press has always occupied an odd place in this city. The reporters, pundits, and editors here are not the political establishment. They don't make laws or issue court rulings. But they clearly are part of the city's primary industry. And at times that leads some in the press to view all of the folks here, politicians and reporters alike, as part of one big organism - or worse, one big game.

"Hey, underneath the bickering, we're all 'Beltway people.'" That's the message of the correspondent's dinner. And that message fits too neatly with what many already think of the press in Washington.

Maybe they've read about how Judy Miller of The New York Times deliberately pseudo-misidentified her friend Scooter Libby as a "former Hill staffer," even though at the time he was the Vice President's Chief of Staff. Or maybe they've tuned into the often-televised White House briefing and seen reporters doing more than a little vamping for the cameras or playing gotcha on small things, scoring personal points.

Journalists have slid in the public's estimation over the past 20 years, and if they want to try to recapture their standing, they need to reassert their independence. They don't need to be hostile with politicians, but they probably don't want to be in a situation where they invite the commander in chief to dinner and then worry about offending him. And, truth be told, the idea of the press and the president sitting down at a junior high version of the Oscars and celebrating how swell they are for the television cameras probably isn't much help either - regardless of who is and isn't offended.

The press may not be the establishment - at least it shouldn't be - but when everyone sits together in a room, tells jokes, and tries not to offend, it all sure looks like the same group of people. And is that really the message journalists want to send? After all, people aren't particularly enamored of the way this city runs. And while it's true they can't vote the news media out of office, they do have recourse.

The public can ignore them.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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