I’m far from the first person to suggest this, for sure, but watching the spectacle left me especially uneasy. The jokes were sharp and it’s not I think that reporters and the subjects they cover–in this case, the President–can’t occasionally josh with each other. Rather, the platitudes offered by President Obama on the value of the press suggested to me that the gala should be abolished.
Obama piously praised, “Investigative journalism; explanatory journalism; journalism that exposes corruption and injustice and gives a voice to the different, the marginalized, the voiceless—that’s power.
“It’s a privilege,” he went on. “It’s as important to America’s trajectory—to our values, our ideals—than anything that we could do in elected office. ”
His words didn’t correspond with the reality of his White House in action. It has hounded whistleblowers and reporters who do just what Obama pretends to admire. His Justice Department hounded New York Times reporter James Risen, trying to get him to reveal a source, before dropping the case last year. Not so lucky was the supposed leaker, indicted and convicted during the Bush Administration, for telling Risen about a plan to confuse Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He is still awaiting sentencing.
Risen called the Obama Administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt denounced the Justice Department’s massive seizure of its reporters’ phone call records as a threat to democracy. A report for the Committee to Protect Journalists authored by former Washington Post editor Len Downie detailed Administration efforts to scare public servants from talking to the press at all.
I suppose it would have been impolite for the White House press corps to bring up the issue while basking in the glow of Hollywood stars in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, .
I never covered the White House. But when my beat was the State Department in 1993 and 1994, I had the pleasure of sharing numerous bylines with Ann Devroy, the Post’s White House correspondent. Ann, who died in 1997, was one of the hardest hitting reporters I ever knew. She single mindedly dedicated herself to badgering the White House for info, confirmation or denial. The sound of her voice on the phone, booming across the newsroom, demanding of Anthony Lakes, President Clinton’s National Security advisor not to “give me that diplomatic $#%^!” still rings in my ear.
She didn’t have the Washington disease of clientitis, the habitual pandering to sources to get them to feed you crumbs. Ann declined to attend the correspondents dinner and rarely appeared on TV and seek the glow of inside-the-Beltway celebrity. Even for the times, she was a throwback.
When foreign governments do to reporters in their countries what the Administration tries with American reporters we call it crackdown. In Washington, a little reserve and distance from the shine of the powerful would do us all good.
Cancel the dinner.
Here is Downey’s report.
This is a compendium of Obama’s actions and press freedom.
Some disagree with Risen.