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Fiddling With Your Bowtie While Baltimore Burns

The White House Correspondents' Dinner and the Freddie Gray protests.
(Photo: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)

"Let's give it up for the Secret Service. I don't want to be too hard on those guys. You know, because they're the only law enforcement agency that will get in trouble if a black man gets shot."  —Cecily Strong, White House Correspondents' Dinner, April 25, 2015

If you've worried that the political class is out of touch with its criminalized underclasses, Saturday evening offered a grim case study.

This was the evening that a handful of protestors in Baltimore responded to police negligence in the death of Freddie Gray by smashing the windows of police cruisers. Meanwhile, a much greater number of peaceful protestors busied themselves fleeing the riot squad of the eighth largest police force in the country.

For a certain kind of political junkie, the Correspondents' Dinner is both a guilty pleasure and a morbid pageant, where a passel of overpaid Beltway reporters schmooze rather too easily with the politicos they're supposed to be investigating. 

Forty miles to the south, the White House Correspondents' Association celebrated the 101st White House Correspondents' Dinner, where political relics from the '90s (George Stephanopoulos; Newt and Callista Gingrich) posed for photographs alongside actors from Modern Family and House of Cards. One particularly surreal photograph from the event shows Nina Totenberg surprising Antonin Scalia with a kiss while Katie Couric distracts him. Scalia has a secret soft spot for the pinkos at NPR.

To discerning ears, the backslapping could be heard as far north as Fort Meade.

Here, then, was a great dissonance. From Washington, Journo Twitter came spangled in sequins and lamé; from Baltimore, we got looped Vine videos of cops donning riot gear.

For a certain kind of political junkie, the Correspondents' Dinner is both a guilty pleasure and a morbid pageant, where a passel of overpaid Beltway reporters schmooze rather too easily with the politicos they're supposed to be investigating (“speaking truth to power,” if you prefer things in the abstract). The other standard line is that the dinner, originally meant to honor young journalists and to acknowledge certain milestones, has become a warmed-over version of the Oscars. The irrelevance of both traditions has become a byword outside D.C. and Los Angeles respectively. After decades of the D.C. gala, to indulge in idle cynicism is to miss the point entirely. Active cynicism is far better.

Beltway journalism functions like Beltway capitalism: Both depend on agents of the state for access, perks, basic intelligence. “Good will”—for scoops, for contract bids—is currency. For every watchdog growling from the third row of the White House Briefing Room, there are five reporters who bare their teeth once a month for show and otherwise type dutifully, obedient stenographers who assuage their consciences with occasional (purely cosmetic) subversions. There is no dissonance, none at all, between the day-to-day functioning of the Press Corps and the annual fêting of the Press Corps. The costume is different; the handshake is the same. To suggest otherwise is to compound with dangerous credulity the hypocrisy of the arrangement.

So mainly it's silly to complain. Except. Except that the faux-insider political reporting that so dominates front pages and broadcast news alike distracts readers and viewers, with alarming insistence, from real news, which almost always happens elsewhere. Just 40 miles north, even.

Saturday's dreadful dissonance, in other words, was not access so much as the parade of insularity: As careerist political journalists align themselves with the money-bundlers and politicos, they find themselves cloistered, complacent, credulous—quarantined, by accident or necessity, from the rest of the citizenry.

"All night, all day / We're gonna fight for Freddie Gray," the protestors chanted as the sun set in Baltimore. “All night, all day / We're gonna fight for Freddie Gray.” While they chanted, a few goons smashed a few police cars and the riot squad held a tenuous line as civilians wound up standing between the cops and the demonstrators—indeed these interceding civilians seem to have saved blood on both sides of the police cordon.

Gray's sister Fredericka pleaded on Saturday night: "My family wants to say, 'Can y'all please, please stop the violence?' Freddie Gray would not want this."

There were a few dozen arrests for vandalism and looting (these included a photographer from Reuters, who left custody under a criminal citation), while the Baltimore City Paper's photo editor, J.M. Giordano, was beaten with no little vigor by five or six cops. His managing editor caught it all on video, and the paper's breaking coverage became essential reading.

There is the ritual or performance of “speaking truth to power,” and then there is the deed of joining the powerless, walking with them, fleeing with them, bleeding with them. The fourth estate is beholden not to the men with the truncheons or to the mandarins in their bow-ties; it's beholden to the people in the streets. That doesn't mean glorifying anarchy. But it does mean contextualizing civil disobedience within the power systems—these include a complacent media—that can leave street action as the only apparent rational response.

Freddie Gray, whom his family will bury today, wouldn't want Baltimore to burn on his account. But his death must be answered, and the story of that answer must be written by someone—someone who isn't in jail, yes, but also someone who isn't hosting a Sunday-morning political talk show. This isn't to suggest that the journos in the Hilton on Saturday should have been in Baltimore; arguably, these folks were on their beat, drumming up new sources and making themselves what is more important now than ever: visible.

What I do mean to suggest is that serious journalism was being done on the streets of Baltimore while in D.C. its dissipated clone slowly embalmed itself with champagne.