4 Myths About TV Coverage and the Gridiron Dinner

TV cameras do change things, and the public doesn't have a right to know.

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I'll admit up front that I have a dog in this fight. Yes, I am a member of the Gridiron Club, a private association of journalists that puts on a musical spoof every year and makes charitable donations and scholarship contributions. But to read the coverage of the spring dinner, one would think the Gridiron was some sort of secret cabal involved in a nefarious conspiracy with the elected officials many of the club's members cover.

The reason for this? It's all because the Gridiron continues to decline televised coverage of its show and dinner. C-SPAN, which wants to cover the event, is miffed. So is, for some reason, David Shuster, a former MSNBC-er who wrongly personalized the situation by blaming Gridiron president Susan Page. Page, in fact, appropriately was upholding a 126-year tradition, not issuing a personal edict.

It's a silly fight, since it's so utterly insignificant to the public at large or democracy. It's just a dinner and a satirical show, folks. It's not a strategy session on Middle East unrest. But the dispute raises some important questions in our hyper-celebritized, Internet, and YouTube world—and begs for the exposure of some myths:

The public demands to know.

I don't buy this, first of all—I truly hope the public has more important things to than watch people eat dinner and sing recalibrated lyrics to old (and now, some newer) songs. And this isn't enough of an argument, anyway. The public may want to know what color underwear the cabinet wears. That doesn't mean they have a right to know. There's a difference between accountability-seeking and voyeurism. The fact that some of the people presenting and performing at the dinner are known figures does not give anyone the right to see into every part of their lives and activities. And as for the president's speech: True, much of the president's activities are covered by a press pool, but not all of them are. Fundraisers, where a lot more happens to affect public policy, are often closed, or at least closed to television coverage. The dinner received some print coverage, and President Obama's very funny speech was indeed recounted. But it's not like there was actual news made. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

Cameras are unobtrusive and should be expected.

Camera coverage can bring insights the printed word cannot; compelling video and still photos of the Japan earthquake and the uprisings in the Middle East are great examples of how powerful and necessary the medium is. But cameras change things, merely by being there. There's more posturing, more theater, and often less substance. And as blasphemous as it may sound to many journalists, I'd argue that some of the Capitol Hill negotiations should not be televised. Deals are made when all sides can sit around a table and speak frankly about what they can and cannot accept. And "deal" is not a dirty word; it's part of how one runs a country as big and diverse as the United States. While it's true that some deal-making is indeed done in private meetings on the Hill, it's harder to make concessions after piously staking out hard territory in public. The public policy stakes are lower at the Gridiron dinner, but that's all the more reason that cameras aren't necessary. True, we are living in a world where a bunch of compulsive Twitter denizens are convinced the whole world is anxious to learn they are thinking about eating a grape. Not everything needs to be publicized to the universe. And no, Gridiron members don't hate C-SPAN. We love C-SPAN. Is there another reason so many of us would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays to appear on the journalists roundtable? It's not because they give us a nice C-SPAN mug; it's because it's great, serious coverage of important issues. The Gridiron is a social event that happens to include people recognizable by the public. It is not a public policy event.

If it's not public, it's suspicious.      

Privacy is not the same thing as secrecy. Simply because the technology exists to chronicle every move that people make does not mean it's acceptable to do so. Individuals, whether or not their names are known to the public at large, should not have to assume that everything they do is subject to reality TV, unless they are locked in their own bedrooms or bathrooms. The further irony here is that the heightened ability to communicate electronically has, in my view, devalued actual human relationships. How often do we see teenagers texting each other across the room? Events affecting public policy or history should receive camera coverage. A private social event is just that. [Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor log.]

The Gridiron shows that the press is too cozy with the people they cover.

This idea, I find just hilarious. There's nothing cozy about a dinner attended by 650 people. And it's not as though President Obama actually hangs out with the press corps at the dinner. He arrives, he eats dinner, he speaks, and he leaves. This is what tends to happen at any kind of event with the press and public officials: Reporters commiserate with each other about furloughs or cuts in their retirement or healthcare plans. Politicians unused to seeing reporters all dressed up—and who aren't always entirely sure they've identified you correctly—say "nice to see you," in case they know you already and would offend by saying "nice to meet you." There's nothing substantive discussed at the event. That's the whole point. More disturbingly, there seems to be some idea out there that reporters must be actively hostile to people in public office to prove they are being fair. This is not only absurd; it is childish, and merely contributes to a poisonous lack of civility in Washington. If events like the Gridiron cause people to put down their verbal swords for a night, all the better. But civility doesn't make for good television.

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