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Nietzsche Goes to the Nerd Prom
‘We’re gonna do it over and over and over again.’ In honor of this weekend's White House Correspondents Association dinner, a time capsule view of the DC press.
Is time a flat circle? It can seem so. The purpose of this post is to compare two articles, separated by decades, that illustrate the possibility. And that also suggest some enduring challenges for the press.
Let’s start with philosophy and pop culture.
‘The Rise and Fall of the Star White House Reporter’
In the first season of the great series True Detective, Matthew McConaughey plays the ruined alcoholic detective Rust Cohle, partner of Woody Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart. Midway through the season, Cohle comes under suspicion that he was actually the perpetrator, in a string of gruesome murders that he and Hart earlier tried to solve.
After being hauled into an interrogation room and being grilled about his past, and while alternating chugs of Lone Star beer with deep drags on a smoke, Rust offers this view, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “flat circle” concept:
You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.
I am thinking of that scene today in DC-journalism terms. Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. I wish we could change—or at least recognize the one part of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence” that is valuable.
The occasion for this flashback: a new story by Max Tani, in the latest issue of Politico magazine, which is timed to the return of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this weekend. The WHCA spectacle—“nerd prom” in local humblebrag parlance—is returning from two years of cancellation because of the pandemic, and the previous years in which Donald Trump did not attend. I wish it had gone on permanent hiatus, but I’ll save that for another time.
Yes, I have been to these dinners. Once, in the Clinton era, I was seated next to a person whose job title was “Supermodel.” Another time I watched then-mogul Donald Trump turn pale with humiliation and then purple with fury, as it dawned on him that the thousands of people in the ballroom were all laughing at him, in response to mocking comments from the stage by then-president Barack Obama. Who knows what difference that made in Trump’s resentment and plans.
These memories are interesting for me, but are part of a ritual that has become bad for the press. Which leads us to Max Tani’s piece.
The title of his story is “The Rise and Fall of the Star White House Reporter.” I think the story is very informative, and Tani maintains some critical distance from the media culture he is describing. But that culture!
I’ve argued in a series of posts—for instance here and here and here—that there is often a gap between what reporters most like to do, and what readers and the public would most like to know. For instance: Reporters like politics. Most readers care about governance—for which they wouldn’t use that term, but would instead think about schools, taxes, health care, jobs. Most reporters are interested in conflict and drama. Most readers and citizens would rather know that things are undramatically getting done.
What is good for ‘Us’ in the broadest sense, is bad for ‘us’ more narrowly.
The central, convincing theme of Max Tani’s story is that something good for the country in the recent past, has been bad for prominent parts of the press. That something is the shift from White House press briefings that are like food fights or cable news shout-panels, which we had in the Trump era, to something more like grown-up transfers of information.
Overall this less dramatic tone has been better for Americans, regardless of political outlook. It means fewer struggles over who is lying about what, and less time spent on rancor and posturing. But overall it has been bad for some White House reporters, by giving them less featured on-camera time.
Tani spells out the tension just that clearly. Here is the start of the article:
Washington reporters have long considered the role of White House correspondent to be the crown jewel of American political journalism. It has launched high-profile television careers, scored countless reporters book deals and been bestowed on media veterans for years of ink-drenched work.
For my own part, I have always considered White House correspondent one of the worst and most confining jobs in political journalism, rather than the crown jewel. That is because for many people it means sitting in a room and writing down what you hear from the podium, rather than prowling around on your own. The most famous illustration is from the Nixon era: During Watergate, Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler gave regular briefings in the White House press room. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did not attend. They were too busy finding things out.
But there are many kinds of reporting and reporters. And Tani is right in saying that the soap opera of the Trump years turned many media figures into stars. Then comes the plot twist:
During the age of Biden, a perch inside the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room has become something altogether different. It’s become a bore….
The Obama press room launched a whole cohort of journalists into media stardom. The Trump press room launched another. The Biden press room?
“I can’t think of any [stars],” said a well-known television news executive. “I don’t really watch the briefings.”
Tani goes into the main exception to the current no-drama trend, a Fox News correspondent whose “questions” are designed purely to create clips of him “standing up” to Jen Psaki. The comparison is to the similar posturing you get in Congressional hearings—if they’re being televised. But then Tani sums up the goods and the bads of the press-room change:
“It’s not such a bad thing that there’s a new sense of sobriety in the White House briefing room,” said Eric Schultz, a former deputy press secretary under Obama. “The histrionics probably got out of control. It is serious business… It’s probably good for democracy for this to be less personality based and more about the work.”
But for the White House scribes, the ones shaking out their tuxedos and cocktail dresses to gather for the White House Correspondents’ dinner on Saturday, it’s been an adjustment at best and deflating at worst.
“It’s a boring and difficult job” [one says — quotes offering criticism in the piece are mostly unnamed].
Better for democracy, worse for star-making. Hmmm, let me think.
Back to the future.
Why is this a flat circle? Reading the new article about the tedium of the Biden era, I instantly thought back many decades, to the doldrums midway through Bill Clinton’s first term.
Clinton was not impeached or scandal-ridden at that point. But he seemed a gravely diminished figure. Only two years after his first election in 1992, and two years before he cruised to re-election over Bob Dole in 1996, the Democrats were absolutely crushed in the 1994 mid-terms. It was a historic wipeout by Newt Gingrich and his Republicans. The GOP picked up an astonishing 54 seats in the House. Gingrich became the first Republican Speaker in decades.
In the following months, the most interesting figure in political news was Gingrich himself. And the most interesting figure in all of news was O.J. Simpson, who had just gone on trial. Clinton seemed among the least interesting. And the palpable mood in the White House press corps was: Why is he doing this to us?
After that mid-term landslide, Howard Kurtz wrote a story for the Washington Post about the White House press-room vibe. Kurtz was then an influential media reporter for the Post, not yet on Fox News—which did not yet exist. He wrote in the Post:
Brit Hume is in his closet-size White House cubicle, watching Kato Kaelin testify on CNN. Bill Plante, in the adjoining cubicle, has his feet up and is buried in the New York Times. Brian Williams is in the corridor, idling away the time with Jim Miklaszewski. An announcement is made for a bill-signing ceremony.
Some of America's highest-paid television correspondents begin ambling toward the pressroom door. "Are you coming with us?" Williams asks.
"I guess so," says Hume, looking forlorn.
The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, told Kurtz that there was some benefit to the enforced silence: "Brit Hume has now got his crossword puzzle capacity down to record time. And some of the reporters have been out on the lecture circuit."
Again, this was Howard Kurtz’s version, not mine. The point is that it could have been written in 2022, rather than 27 years earlier. The only real “tell” that it’s from another era is that no one is looking at a smart phone. They did not exist. And that no one is having to post Tweets or file online updates.
In response to the laments in that article, I wrote a not-very-generous-spirited passage in my book Breaking the News. It started this way:
The deadpan restraint with which Kurtz told this story is admirable. But the question many readers would want to scream at the idle correspondents is Why don't you go out and do some work?
Why not go out and interview someone, even if you're not going to get any airtime that night? Why not escape the monotonous tyranny of the White House press room, which reporters are always complaining about? The knowledge that O.J. will keep you off the air yet again should liberate you to look into those stories you never "had time" to deal with before…
What might these well-paid, well-trained correspondents have done while waiting for the O.J. trial to become boring enough that they could get back on the air? They might have tried to learn something that would be of use to their viewers when the story of the moment went away.
I went on to enumerate a long list of subjects that cried out for more journalistic attention than they were getting, even as star reporters were lamenting that they had nothing to do. If you’re interested, you can see them in an Atlantic excerpt here.
A few were specific to that era, but most are evergreen. To give one example: the latest evidence not on the politics of immigration but on the economic (and education-related and civic) details of who exactly it helped and hurt. But that moment’s culture of the press, like this moment’s, made such issues seem deflating and boring, compared with dramatic exchanges on TV.
The bad side of “eternal recurrence” is that a mocking Washington Post piece about press behavior from many decades ago still applies now.
The side that is instructive, if not “good,” is that almost everything that matters in the country is part of a centuries-long ongoing debate. If I tried to make a full list, it would never end. But it includes:
The balance between government support and private efforts in fostering the economy, from Jefferson-v-Hamilton until today. The balance between opportunity and equity; between the urban and the rural; between the local or regional and the national; between the comfortingly traditional and the disruptively new. Between the communal and the individual. The broadly “idealistic” and the prudently “realist.” Recognizing the country’s sins, from slavery onward, without ignoring its ideals.
Twenty-seven years from now, and ten times longer, these issues will be with us. But I hope that twenty-seven years from now, we won’t need another “gonna do it over and over and over again” profile of our press.