Saturday, April 09, 2005

Circus at the Press Club

Yesterday, I attended a National Press Club “event” in Washington, DC (if you want to see my story on it for ePM, click here) entitled “Who is a Journalist?” It was a panel discussion, including the notorious Jeff Gannon, “wonkette,” Garrett Graff (the first blogger to get a White House day pass), and others. As you can imagine, it was an interesting experience, though not very illuminating.

Right now, I don’t want to talk about the various stupid statements (one of the panelists actually argued that journalists should be encouraged to be “misfits,” whatever that means) or even how much more impressive “wonkette” (Ana Marie Cox) was than I expected (among other things, she was the only panelist who actually tried to hold Gannon’s feet to the fire). No, I want to talk briefly about the very idea of “discussions” of this sort as means of clarifying issues.

Not only is the title question, as Cox said at one point, “stupid” but a panel of this sort leads to nothing but continuation of the media circus atmosphere that has been encompassing our “news gathering” for decades now—and the Press Club knew it. Though Press Club president and moderator Rick Dunham asked for decorum right from the start, the whole point of the panel was performance art—something that would make the event itself “newsworthy.”

The Press Club set up the panel to be theater, as can be seen in their choice of panelists. Gannon, of course, has never been involved in serious discussion on any issue (in writing or in speech). He is, at very best, a clown. “Wonkette,” though surprisingly impressive, is a gossip columnist. Graff and Matt Yglesias, one of the other panelists, are merely kids—recent Harvard graduates, at that (not that being so is bad, but it brings them from the same elite), not the representative bloggers they were “meant” to be (it’s not true that bloggers are kids, and they certainly are not usually from the Ivy League). John Stanton, who claimed that journalists are “misfits,” clearly had never thought about the issue carefully, and Julie Herschfeld David seemed to be there only because she is on the credentialing committee for journalists at the Capitol. Not a single one of the panelists has a background that would make their comments on the question under consideration notable.

And so it proved: nothing was said by the panelists that had not been said ad nauseum by bloggers—and that had not been said better by the writers on the web. Because of the panel format, comments were truncated and topics were touched upon just briefly before disappearing completely, like stones in a game of ducks-and-drakes. Quite clearly, the panel was simply a chance to raise the profiles of the panelists and the Press Club—by attracting people like me and organizations like CSPAN, which broadcast the event.

But don’t get me wrong: I had a good time. I like a good performance as much as anyone. And the Press Club set things up so that there certainly would be good impromptu performances.

The best came right at the end, when Michael Rogers of blogactive yelled out to Gannon: “Did you ever sleep with Scott McClellan? Did you ever sleep with anyone at the White House?”

The Press Club was suitable appalled—on the surface. But they were the ones who had created this circus, so must have been secretly pleased.

The question, if there had really been thought in planning this panel, should have been “What is journalism?” “Who is a journalist?” is, as Cox pointed out, a silly question: a journalist is someone who practices journalism.

Oh, I forgot for a second: that wasn’t really the question, was it.

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