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Funny Speech, Dismal Dinner

President Obama's speech to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night was full of delightfully deflating zingers in which Obama gently mocked his reputation, his top aides -- and his political opponents. Here's the full text.

When he got around to talking "about the men and women in this room whose job it is to inform the public and pursue the truth," however, the ribbing pretty much stopped -- replaced by something more like pity. Obama expressed his sympathies about the media industry's struggles to find its way in a new world, and spoke passionately about its essential role to society.

"[W]hen you are at your best, then you help me be at my best," he said. "You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and falling into easy political games that people are so desperately weary of.

"And that kind of reporting is worth preserving -- not just for your sake, but for the public's. We count on you to help us make sense of a complex world and tell the stories of our lives the way they happen, and we look for you for truth -- even if it's always an approximation."

But with his remarks about the media, Obama (unintentionally or not) highlighted the evening's fundamental and deeply disturbing disconnect. Because the correspondents dinner isn't about journalism, or its uncertain future, or the importance of holding the government accountable. It's about a bunch of media elites partying and clowning around with a bunch of Hollywood celebrities.

It is, as I wrote on NiemanWatchdog on Friday, an orgy of self-congratulation. And, particularly since 2006, when Stephen Colbert left the audience dazed and uncomprehending with his brutal critique of both George W. Bush and the press corps that failed to expose him for what he was, it's become widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the dangerous coziness between Washington’s journalistic elites and the people they cover.

And I had to wonder if there wasn't more than a little truth to one of Obama's first jokes of the night. "I have to confess I really did not want to be here tonight," he said, "but I knew I had to come -- just one more problem that I've inherited from George W. Bush."

Because here's the question: What was the president doing there, really?

Before I get everyone too morose, however, let's go back for a moment to the president's speech. Because there were some very funny lines -- some of which even cracked Obama up himself. He seemed particularly pleased with himself over the jokes that came at the expense of his top aides. For instance, he took a dig at his notoriously foul-mouthed chief of staff by saying about Mother's Day "that this is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he's not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'" Obama chuckled to himself. "That's true."

He mocked chief economic adviser Larry Summers's penchant for falling asleep at meetings: "And I do appreciate that Larry is here tonight because it is seven hours past his bedtime." And he made a little fun of his hapless treasury secretary, promising to "housetrain our dog, Bo, because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else treating him like a fire hydrant."

Obama also seemed very pleased with his mockery of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's attempts to give the GOP a hip-hop makeover. "Michael Steele is in the house tonight," Obama said. "Or as he would say, 'in the heezy.'" Then, making like a rapper, Obama exclaimed: "Whassup?" Big smile.

Later, it was John A. Boehner's turn, with Obama saying he and the perpetually overtanned House Republican leader "have a lot in common. He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. Wassup, John?"

Obama poked fun of his own reputation as a media darling. "All of you voted for me," he said -- before adding: "Apologies to the Fox table." And he joked about his own arrogance: "During the second hundred days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first hundred days," he said. "It's going to be big, folks...I believe that my next hundred days will be so successful I will be able to complete them in 72 days."

Obama seemed to be having a good time. But I wonder if at some point he and his White House aides are going to start seeing the correspondents dinner as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

After all, actual White House correspondents make up a tiny fraction of the 2,500-plus people attending the festivities. Going back to Obama's point about the essential role played by the media, the heroes of the night were not those journalists who had achieved great heights in accountability reporting. On the media side, the big stars were the people who are on TV -- most of them glib repeaters of talking points, the play-by-play announcers of the perpetual Washington game of political one-upsmanship. And even they were eclipsed by the likes of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Natalie Portman and the cast of "Gossip Girl," whose relevance to White House journalism is nil.

In that NiemanWatchdog essay referenced above, I outline a few steps the White House Correspondents' Association could take to redeem the dinner. That includes reforming ticket distribution in favor of less high-profile news organizations that will take advantage of the opportunity to develop sources, and discouraging organizations from bringing guests who don’t contribute to the journalistic mission of the event.

Sitting there on Saturday night, I had a few more thoughts. What if the association took advantage of the evening to issue specific calls for greater transparency from the White House? What if it prominently featured and celebrated the best in White House accountability journalism -- while at the same time acknowledging the year's failures?

We could still have a great party. Just not a delusional one.

There's no shortage of further coverage of the dinner, and the weekend. From the Washington Post alone, here are Richard Leiby, Chris Cillizza, Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, Mary Ann Akers and Liz Kelly. Washington media doyenne Tammy Haddad aggregates everything party-related on her Web site.

And Obama wasn't the only headliner, of course. Comedian Wanda Sykes gently ribbed the president -- and saved her most vicious zingers for Rush Limbaugh, who was safely out of the room.

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 11, 2009; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Press Watch  
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Next: Cheney Torture Tour Comes to CBS


Dude - you're overthinking this thing. For 1 night, let it be about the jokes and the entertainment...

Posted by: jhorstma | May 11, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Funniest comment:

Obama saying he and the perpetually overtanned House Republican leader "have a lot in common. He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. Wassup, John?"

The dude is orange!

Posted by: jfern03 | May 11, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Boner MUST have the tanning industy lobby in his pocket.

Posted by: jfern03 | May 11, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Funny Speech, Dismal Reporting, Depressing!

Posted by: alance | May 11, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

What's funny about Rahm isn't used to saying the word day after mother? It was a crude remark by an arrogant punk.

Posted by: truffles1 | May 11, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Dan, you and poster "truffles1" are reading too much into this event. I agree with poster "jhortsma" who put the event into the proper perspective.

BTW I wonder if "truffles," so offended by Rahm's language and the President's joke about it, was equally upset when then-VP Cheney famously told Sen. Lehey to "Go f-ck yourself."

Posted by: taylorb1 | May 11, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Excellent column and take on the evening's events. However, Mr. Froomkin let the mistress of ceremonies off a bit too lightly. It is most unfortunate, particularly with so much first rate comedic talent available, that a Bordello Lounge performer was chosen to helm the proceedings.

Posted by: qrxone | May 11, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Dan is right. It is time for this event to die. Yes, we all need to relax, but having a President publicly behave like a smartass does not help us toward that goal. Obama knows this and tried to avoid it. He should try harder next time for the good of everyone.

Posted by: Mark27 | May 11, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

The purpose of this dinner? To shove the fact that journos are all just entertainment reports at heart in the faces of the American people. To say 'see, we just go along to get along and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it'. It's a disgusting display of enabling a government that thinks nothing of torturing and murdering anyone they can get their hands on. It literally makes me sick.

Posted by: davidbn27 | May 11, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

At least Obama can recognize that the media is totally biased and in the tank for him.

Posted by: bobmoses | May 11, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

I have a feeling it will only get worse, especially now that MSNBC did live air of the entire event. Obviously it was a coup for MSNBC because they are targeting youth, Obama's strong suit. But next year, i expect Fox to do live coverage with an anti-Obama slant.

Without a doubt, Barack and Michelle were the stars of this show. I was pleased that Obama ended his 'speech' on a serious note.

Posted by: Anadromous2 | May 11, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Truffles is offended by Rahm getting a hard time from somebody:

1)Who actually knows R. Emmanuel pretty well
2)Who happens to be Rahmbo's boss

Uh, Truffie baby... if ANYONE is qualified to give Emmanuel a hard time, it's Obama. If there's an "arrogant punk" in this narrative, it's you.

So why don't you make like an actual truffle. Turn the lights off where you are, and heap all-natural fertilizer on yourself.


Posted by: crix | May 11, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

...And speaking of all-natural fertilizer, here's Bob Moses.

Where's DFC 102 when we need him?

Posted by: crix | May 11, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

The President had no choice but to be there. If he did not go he would anger DC journalists and they might then start reporting fairly on his presidency.

They never liked W and even he wouldn't dare skip the dinner.

The dinner does illustrate a truth -- DC journalists are part of the political infrastructure. And they are extremely biased toward liberal Democrats.

'Twas ever thus and ever will be.

Posted by: DagnyT | May 11, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

DC journalists are part of the political infrastructure. And they are extremely biased toward liberal
I understand completely.
Reality has a well documented liberal bias.

Posted by: dijetlo | May 11, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Waaaaah! The liberal media hates us! Our Republican platform, which I have been assured by radio and TV talk show hosts is entirely reasonable and quite popular, would be so successful were it not for the biases that surround us! The fruits of 8 years in control of the White House and 4 years of complete federal government control weren't enough to overcome this terrible prejudice! If only the media would judge us by our actions! IT'S SO UNFAIR THAT I VOW TO BE TWICE AS CONSERVATIVE FROM NOW ON!!!!!

This is what's going through their pointy little heads. (as always, apologies to the real conservatives who don't recognize the GOP anymore)

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 11, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

The problem you describe, the disconnect between the corps and the object of their coverage, is diminished somewhat now that you have a president who understands the role of a free press instead of a vice president who hates it.

Remember, this problem only reared it's ugly head when it became so glaringly apparent we had a disingenuous leader using the event to his own benefit while treating the press corps like mushrooms.

I don't see a problem with a normal, press heeding president taking a night to laugh at the absurdity of some of the games played in Washington.

To some this dissidence may wreak of partisanship but to me it's really a simple matter of honesty. Obama truly heeds the press while Cheney ran roughshod and panned them any chance he could get while manipulating the press to his own dark agenda.

And finally - It's nice to see Fox news called out!

Posted by: imike1 | May 11, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

These events feel like something out of a different era. There seem to be a dozen different dinners which are all the "one" night where Obama and other political elite can get together and let their hair down. If the President allowed he could probably attend one such dinner a week.

Posted by: fletc3her | May 11, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

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