After quoting Marx ("Groucho, not Karl”) to squeeze one last laugh out of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, President Obama abruptly stopped joking. Hundreds of politicians, celebrities, journalists, and corporate sponsors fell silent as he dropped a 607-word morality bomb: “We can do better,” Obama told the elites.
“If we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls,” he admonished an audience focused on profits, ratings, and polls, “then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.”
The last quarter of Obama’s remarks Saturday night received little coverage from media organizations because reporters tend to be biased toward conflict and the familiar--in this case the president’s traditionally humorous and self-conscious monologue (“I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be”).
But it may stand as one of the best rhetorical moments of Obama’s presidency, a clearheaded indictment of four national institutions (the media, the entertainment industry, big business, and the political system), coupled by a prescription for revival.
He started by reminding the well-fed and wine-soaked audience that it’s been a bad couple of weeks for their countrymen.
Obviously, there has been no shortage of news to cover over these past few weeks. And these have been some very hard days for too many of our citizens. Even as we gather here tonight, our thoughts are not far from the people of Boston and the people of West, Texas. There are families in the Midwest who are coping with some terrible floods. So we’ve had some difficult days.
Like any presidential address of note, Obama didn’t let spirits sag.
But even when the days seemed darkest, we have seen humanity shine at its brightest. We’ve seen first responders and National Guardsmen who have dashed into danger, law-enforcement officers who lived their oath to serve and to protect, and everyday Americans who are opening their homes and their hearts to perfect strangers.
And, like any decent presidential address, Obama pandered a bit. Remember, this was a dinner celebrating White House reporters.
And we also saw journalists at their best—especially those who took the time to wade upstream through the torrent of digital rumors to chase down leads and verify facts and painstakingly put the pieces together to inform, and to educate, and to tell stories that demanded to be told.
He didn’t need to tell the crowd that many news organizations reported inaccuracies about the Boston bombings. Nor did he mention the relatively little coverage given to regulatory failures in West Texas. With a nod to one newspaper and to NBC reporter Pete Williams’s impressively accurate coverage in Boston, Obama subtly reminded journalists that their industry is nothing without the public’s trust.
If anyone wonders, for example, whether newspapers are a thing of the past, all you needed to do was to pick up or log on to papers like the Boston Globe. When their communities and the wider world needed them most, they were there making sense of events that might at first blush seem beyond our comprehension. And that’s what great journalism is, and that's what great journalists do. And that’s why, for example, Pete Williams’s new nickname around the NBC newsroom is "Big Papi."
Obama happens to be president at a time when virtually all of the nation’s social institutions are losing the public’s trust and facing irrelevancy in the digital age. There are exceptions--the military, for example--and Americans are generous in their praise of those who serve causes greater than themselves.
And in these past few weeks, as I’ve gotten a chance to meet many of the first responders and the police officers and volunteers who raced to help when hardship hits, I was reminded, as I’m always reminded when I meet our men and women in uniform, whether they’re in war theater, or here back home, or at Walter Reed in Bethesda—I’m reminded that all these folks, they don’t do it to be honored, they don’t do it to be celebrated. They do it because they love their families and they love their neighborhoods and they love their country.
And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country. Because if we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.
Heads nodded in the audience. A woman sitting at a table next to me murmured, “He went there. Good for him.” To some in his audience, anyway, Obama had struck a wellspring of guilt.
And so, those of us in this room tonight, we are incredibly lucky. And the fact is, we can do better—all of us. Those of us in public office, those of us in the press, those who produce entertainment for our kids, those with power, those with influence—all of us, including myself, we can strive to value those things that I suspect led most of us to do the work that we do in the first place—because we believed in something that was true, and we believed in service, and the idea that we can have a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the people around us.
"Including myself" implies that Obama realizes that his presidency falls short at times of its promise. Elected by voters who had the audacity to hope for change and unity, Obama is instead the third-straight president known more for polarization than unification.
And that’s our obligation. That’s a task we should gladly embrace on behalf of all of those folks who are counting on us; on behalf of this country that’s given us so much.
The audience rose, and a man near me shouted, “Amen!” It was time to hit the after-parties.