By: Jesse Oxfeld
The keynote panel at Tuesday’s The Week Opinion Awards and Forum, addressing the question of whether the media elite is out of touch with America, was moderated by Harry Evans — or, rather, Sir Harold — the British knight (but naturalized American citizen) who spent the night in Washington, D.C., away from his grand apartment on New York’s Sutton Place.
The panel featured, among others, his wife, Tina Brown, who hosts a CNBC talk show and writes a Washington Post column and once threw a party for 1,500 glitterati at the base of the Statue of Liberty; Margaret Carlson, long a fixture at Time magazine and a regular panelist on a variety of political talk shows; and Pat Robertson, who runs a television network and ran for president in 1988.
It all made for good entertainment, watching the elite discuss elitism in the elitist splendor of the elegant and imposing beaux arts Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, where the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949. Or, at least, reasonably good entertainment: By the time the panel wound up, at nearly 10 o’clock, a significant slice of the audience, done with their brownie ice cream towers, had departed.
But until then, real live elite journalists — plus a handful of U.S. senators, a number of exquisitely tailored business leaders, and, natch, some overeducated 20-something hangers-on who were pleased to finagle invitations to an event with an open bar — were among the roughly 200 taking this all in, while being served a Kentucky bibb salad with merlot-roasted pears, tenderloin of beef with potato, celeriac, and stilton gratin, accompanied by free-flowing white and red Cotes du Rhones.
All of which made the panel a touch superfluous: Obviously these folks are perfectly in touch with normal Americans.
The point of the evening was to present The Week magazine’s second annual Opinion Awards — which went to writers Peter Beinart and Jonathan Turley, cartoonist Tom Toles, and the PowerLine bloggers.
It had been kicked off by opening remarks from Walter Isaacson, now the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and a brief keynote address from Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, who talked about thinking and writing, writing and thinking, and Social Security.
With moderator Evans, an avowed fan of the mystique of the American West, stalking the stage and his panelists with the bow-legged gait of a cowboy (and at one point charging at Robertson to fix a microphone that, to all appearances, seemed to be working just fine), the panel — who perhaps missed the merlot-roasted pears, stuck up on stage through most of the meal — came to a surprising conclusion, agreeing that the media elite is actually insufficiently elite.
They’re tired of all the opinion in news, they’re tired of coverage of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, and they want media to re-assume the “elite” role of providing straightforward facts about legitimately important information.
The problem, as Brown put it, is “the neutering of the gatekeepers, the death of editing.” As writer and former Clinton administration insider Sid Blumenthal noted from the audience, “We have no common view of what a fact is.”
Especially in the blog era — “Yes, yes, we’re all in awe of blogs,” said Evans with frustration, as an audience member complained that bloggers were underrepresented here — when there are so many new voices it’s important for the media elite to present the baseline facts from which these opinions flow.
“The bloggers wouldn’t have anything to say unless they had the media elite,” Carlson noted. “They can’t do what The New York Times or Time magazine can do” because they don’t have those kinds of resources to devote to reporting. (Or, for that matter, to waging legal battles. Over a cocktail-hour three fingers of Johnnie Walker Black, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper marveled at the legal bills he’s accumulating for his employer and speculated on whether he’ll be given a furlough at Thanksgiving to attend his 25th high-school reunion.)
Of course, it’s easy for everyone to agree, in the abstract, that the media elite should be more elite, that it should ignore Michael and Martha and deliver only objective fact. In the abstract, there isn’t the giant clicking sound of viewers switching off straightforward news and channel-changing to “fair and balanced” cable coverage, or the haunting vision of readers canceling their hard-news newspaper subs while lapping up fluff-news Us Weekly.
But one thing was clear: The elite is now nearly united in disdain for Dan Rather. “Here’s the man who cost Dan Rather his job,” Evans riffed as the PowerLiner came to the stage to accept his blog-of-the-year award early in the evening. “And thank you for that.” His offhand comment might make for an awkward Upper East Side dinner party sometime in the future, but, apparently, that’s the way it is.