White House Correspondent’s Dinner Reflects Politics’ Reliance on Social Media

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An evening filled with designer gowns, custom-made tuxes and glittering champagne flutes. Celebrities gathered around tables that are arranged way too close to each other while photographers and journalists document their every move. On stage, a funny Black man cracks jokes, poking fun of notable celebrities both in and outside of the audience, occasionally acknowledging his race or being just a little too edgy for white people’s comfort. There is decadence, there is fame, there is humor.

This could easily be a description of this year’s Academy Awards, just add some gold statues and tedious acceptance speeches. Take those elements away and you get the 2016 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which took place April 30, marking the last correspondent’s dinner in Barack Obama’s eight-year presidential tenure. Each year, Obama has proven himself to be a bit of a goofball, light-hearted and cracking some headline-worthy jokes. However, this year, the President pulled out all the stops and lived out his stand-up fantasy, turning his thirty minute speech into a full-blown comedy routine.

Yes, I found myself chuckling throughout the “act,” but the Internet frenzy that ensued the next day did leave a bad taste in my mouth, leading me to rethink this whole comedy set and the intention behind it all in the first place — especially considering my own shifting political awareness and complicated relationship with contemporary journalism and media.

I can start with my recent realization that I am growing increasingly moderate (or centric, neutral—pick whatever middle-ground label you’d like) since coming to college. A rarity, in my case, seeing as I came into the world of higher-level academia as a poster-child for the far left. Growing up in a particularly liberal household, I felt a strong need for justice, for a cause with which to connect. Everything conservative outraged me and I clung to democratic and liberal figures the way Californians cling to umbrellas at the slightest sign of rain.

But in the past year, I’ve slowly drifted towards the right, now more and more critical of ideologies on either end of the spectrum. By reading more and thus learning more, I have become increasingly aware that corruption, greed and manipulation are synonymous with national politics on both the left and the right. And I don’t approach that fact with any sort of cynicism or anarchy in mind; it’s just the way it is, the way our system — and the fundamental err in human nature — has allowed politics to be.

So this ties in to Obama’s perplexing Correspondent’s Dinner routine in that it was one of the first real moments when our president seemed to be aware of all of this too. He called attention to the bizarre marriage of politics and media, wondering why exactly Kendall Jenner was sitting in the same room as Bernie Sanders, who was sitting in the same room as Helen Mirren. Sure, politics relies on media and media relies on politics but has this co-mingling perhaps gone too far?

Following this train of thought, I remembered one of the newest episodes of “Broad City,” the Comedy Central show about best friends Abby and Ilana’s New York City antics. In the latest season, Ilana spent one episode volunteering for the Hillary Clinton campaign. If you’ve seen any episodes then you can probably imagine the colorful zeal with which Ilana praised Clinton, an undeniably significant female figure in American politics. By the end of the episode, in came Chill-ary herself! Uncomfortably delivering punchlines and hugging Ilana as if she were her aberrant niece at a family reunion.

Watching this, I was shocked, to say the least.

How could these young, hip Jewish New Yorkers not devote an entire episode to Feelin the Bern? Why would they politicize a show that has gotten so many millennials overjoyed with raunchy, feminist humor?

A quick Google search revealed that Viacom owns Comedy Central… and is one of the top media endorsers of the Clinton campaign. From there, everything fell into place.

I connect this back to Obama’s speech two weeks ago, in which he jabbed at the tight-knit link that journalism and politics have, only to close with a sentimental thanking of so many journalists for “pushing against” trends of writing what will get the most likes or shares. And what happened within hours of Obama’s speech? Tweets and retweets; memes and hashtags; GIFs of “Obama out” swarming social media—more stories about the jokes than about the closing message. Obama himself feeding into the spectacle that he spent half an hour making fun of.

As I said before, part of my journey to the middle involved reading more. Most importantly, that meant reading a variety of publications and websites because the first thing you should know when reading “the news” is whoever owns that newspaper endorses some candidate or has some political affiliation behind it that inevitably dictates their contents’ rhetoric. You really can’t escape any sort of political agenda so I’ve found the best solution is just cast a wide net, read as many conservative news stories as you do liberal, read news from other countries, read news on subjects you know nothing about.

If this year’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner taught us anything, it’s that we are now fully submerged in a world where tweets matter to our elected officials. That a like isn’t just a token of social status, but a figure in calculated political clout. We are going to continue seeing our most beloved and our most reviled politicians popping up in movies and in TV shows (and in some cases, we already have) because the strategy of elections depends on media ratings.

We can continue to grow and evolve our personal affiliations, discerning the legitimate from the spoon-fed, but the fact is celebrity and politician are now synonymous. Finding accurate news, and even determining what accurate means, will only grow harder and harder. However, the Internet’s greatest asset is its ability to provide any information, from any source, from the around the world, to anyone that’s looking. It really is just a matter of deciding to search a bit deeper.

Savannah Peykani is a third-year film and media studies, literary journalism double-major. She can be reached at speykani@uci.edu.

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