Journalists Slam Dissonance Between White House Correspondents’ Dinner and Baltimore Protests

“The Secret Service is the only law enforcement to face repercussions if a black man gets shot,” was arguably Cecily Strong’s best quip during her gig at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She followed this up later, by addressing the President directly about his hair color showing signs of age: “Your hair’s so white, it can talk back to the police.”

Part of the reason why her jokes stung, and circulated widely the next day, was because that very night, just an hour away, the Black Lives Matter movement was taking to the streets. The anger over the mysterious and gruesome death in police custody of a young man named Freddie Gray exploded a decades-long history of tension and anger about police tactics in Baltimore. The protests prompted warnings to sports fans attending a game, and rumors of a truce between the Bloods, Crips, and Nation of Islam, so the city’s youth could be united in standing up against police violence.

The contrast between the two Saturday nights — one full of schmoozing and well-chosen barbs and the other full of people fighting for their lives — was so stark that both liberal and conservative media outlets seized on it for a critique. Clever conservative chief Matt Drudge posted a tweet that was both unnecessarily provocative and contained a frisson of truth. It was reminiscent of liberal outrage about the Bush administration’s fancy events during the war in Iraq.

Drudge tweet

Today, the divide between the dinner and the streets of Baltimore is being filtered through observers’ political perspective. To Drudge and his ilk, Obama is responsible for sowing the seeds of racial animus, while to radicals like Cornel West, this historic presidency represents a failed opportunity to dig out and air the centuries of racial injustice and violence that have created situations like the one in Baltimore and other cities and counties throughout the country. Yet to media critics, the night exemplified everything that’s wrong with political news journalism. There were probably more cameras in the Hilton’s ballroom than on the streets of Baltimore. Mic’s Tom McKay was particularly scathing: 

This is the difference between what life looks like for the haves and the have-nots. While the chattering class in D.C. was patting itself on the back for their accomplishments this year, people in Baltimore were busy being “dispersed” by the same police force they were protesting against.

Local journalist David Zurawik went hard on CNN as well as other well-resourced news organizations (particularly ones with helicopters), saying they missed an opportunity to cover their paralyzed, seething neighbor to the north.

For all the praise I heaped on CNN earlier in the week for its journalistically sound coverage of the protests here, the channel has my utter contempt for its commitment to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner tonight. It focused its cameras on this self-aggrandizing exercise in black-tie narcissism while just 55 miles down the road civil unrest led to smashed car and store windows, convenience store looting and vandalism, and more than three hours of face-to-face confrontations between police and protesters that led to gridlock on the streets of downtown Baltimore.

Still, Saturday night’s contrasting stories show that police brutality is very much on the national radar, mostly thanks to the continued horrors of cases including Walter Scott‘s and Gray’s. After all, Strong was openly joking about police brutality and the racial double standard in front of an assemblage of the most elite figures in both media and politics, and she even elicited a knowing chuckle from the President. As obscene as the WHCD is by its very existence, it also provides an opportunity to use laughter to expose uncomfortable truths in a room full of powerful people. Strong’s one-liners, and the reaction they’ve since garnered, shows that no one is unaware of the looming issue at this point, even if mainstream media outlets haven’t switched their coverage priorities.

For its part, the Obama administration sent an aide to Gray’s funeral today. Meanwhile, for families that have been protesting their loved ones’ unexamined deaths every single week for months, the recent swelling of their ranks is sadly welcome:

Ms. Jones and relatives have protested every Wednesday night, often in front of City Hall, for more than 80 weeks, vigils they call “West Wednesdays.” Ms. Kumar, the A.C.L.U. lawyer, credits the family with raising awareness here and, now that national attention is on police-involved killings, setting the stage for the uproar over Mr. Gray’s death.