Let them eat cake: the White House Correspondents Association dinner

Ninety-three murders of journalists have been documented in Mexico since 2000, according to Article 19, an international organization devoted to freedom of the press.

Want some names? In the first three months of 2016, there were 69 attacks against the press in Mexico, including the murders of three journalists: Marco Hernández Bautista, Anabel Flores Salazar and Moisés Dagdug Lutzow.

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Mexican reporter Anabel Flores Salazar, a 32-year-old mother of two, was discovered on the side of the road half-naked with her arms tied behind her back and a plastic bag over her head. She worked as a crime reporter for the newspaper El Sol de Orizaba in the eastern state of Veracruz

 

But the journalists, politicians and celebrities didn’t let any of that get in the way of the revelry, schmoozing and self-congratulatory behavior at the White House Correspondents Association dinner on April 30.

Like at the Academy Awards, toned and tanned women in designer outfits posed for the cameras on the red carpet as they arrived. There were actresses Kerry Washington, Vivica A. Fox and Carrie Fisher (with her dog, Gary), models Karlie Kloss, Kendall Jenner and Daniela Lopez, even the entire cast of The View.

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Media and public policy expert Kendall Jenner at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, April 30, 2016. Source: perezhilton.com

 

All the talk after the splashy dinner, more like Anna Wintour’s annual Met Gala than a media event, was about comedian Larry Wilmore’s controversial remarks. None of the talk was about how the event affirmed the close, almost cloying, relationships between the politicians and the political press who cover the White House.

If you want an explanation for the precipitous across-the-board bipartisan decline in the public’s respect for the press, you have it in the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

When I handled public relations for a major corporation, a standard warning to employees likely to come into contact with the media was, “Remember. A reporter is not your friend.” That didn’t mean the media were your enemy, just that no matter how amiable they might be, their objective is to search out the news, to inform the public debate, not to serve as a marketing arm of the company.

The media in Washington, D.C. seem to have forgotten that.

The White House Correspondents Association dinner that began on May 7, 1921 as a somewhat stuffy black-tie event for 50 guests (yes, all men) has expanded to a 2620 guest dinner and a bacchanalia of parties stretching out over days.

A turning point in the dinner’s perception came in 2012 when respected NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said on “Meet the Press” that it was “time to rethink” the celebrity-focused occasion since it, in his words, “separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically.”

“What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country?” Brokaw asked. “ Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?”

If you wonder where Donald Trump came from, and even to some degree Bernie Sanders, this is it. The whole self-congratulatory White House Correspondents Association affair is a celebration by politicians and the press of their specialness, a reminder of why so many Americans feel abandoned and ignored by the elite decision-makers who live in their bubble of mutual admiration.

“…now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country,” wrote Politico before this year’s dinner. “It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America).”

Penn, El Chapo and Rolling Stone: throwing journalistic ethics to the wind

Mexican photojournalists hold pictures of their murdered colleague Rubén Espinoza during a demostration held at the Angel of Independence square in Mexico City. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican photojournalists hold pictures of their murdered colleague Rubén Espinoza during a demostration held at the Angel of Independence square in Mexico City. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Rubén Espinosa, 31, a photographer for the Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, was killed in a Mexico City apartment in August, along with four women. Each had been beaten, tortured, and shot in the head.

Espinosa was the 13th journalist working in Veracruz to be killed since Governor Javier Duarte from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) came to power in 2011, according to Article 19, an international organization defending freedom of expression and information.

But what does Sean Penn care about that? His interest is in self-aggrandizement. Tossing humanity aside, he arranged to do a secret, exclusive interview of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a murderous drug cartel leader known as El Chapo, that was published January 9 by Rolling Stone.

Sean Penn (L) greets El Chapo

Sean Penn (L) greets El Chapo

This is the same paragon of journalistic ethics that published the since discredited story of a gang rape of a student at a University of Virginia fraternity. A report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reviewing Rolling Stone’s pursuit and coverage of that story said the publication didn’t follow “basic, even routine journalistic practice”.

The same criticism applies to Penn’s story, a stream of consciousness essay that reads like something written by a drug-addled Hunter S. Thompson, requiring the reader to suffer through over 4000 words about the derring-do involved in getting to El Chapo before Penn even meets him.

“I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men,” wrote Penn. “But I’m in my rhythm.” So why consider “…those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike…” who’ve died at El Chapo’s hands? Journalistic glory awaits.

Besides, as Penn wrote, El Chapo doesn’t engage in “gratuitous kidnapping and murder”. He’s “…a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” Well, that explains it.

You might be surprised that, as a former reporter, I’m not too concerned about the ethics of Penn interviewing El Chapo, even though he’s clearly a drug lord who has committed murder and mayhem. Any good reporter would try to do the same.

I also don’t think Penn doing the interview and not advising law enforcement of his contact with Guzman, and where he could be found, is an ethical error.

My gripe is about something Rolling Stone admitted right up front, without any apparent shame: “Disclosure: … an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication.”

Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s publisher, even told the New York Times. “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place.”

The problem is that’s a massive breach of journalistic principles.

It also raises legitimate questions about the contents of the article. Wenner said El Chapo didn’t ask for any changes, but how can the reader trust that? Admitting that the subject was given a pre-approval opportunity invites a lot of speculation about the truth.

Wenner compounded the problem by telling the Times, “We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”

That’s a bad move, too. It’s OK to go back to sources to clarify facts, to avoid making errors, but not to give them quote approval.

Politico argues that pre-approval was no big deal. “It was only common sense for El Chapo to demand story approval lest a geographically revealing detail get folded in and lead to his capture. In other words, the El Chapo story probably would not have been granted without the pre-publication concession—and without having a swaggering celebrity amateur to report and write it.”

Saying it’s OK to grant pre-approval if that’s the only way to get a story done is a cop out if there ever was one. That’s a slippery slope that can justify all sorts of ethical compromises to get a story.

And that’s where trust in journalism is lost.

American dream in a Mexican restaurant

By Bill MacKenzie

Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon had a dream: to own a thriving, authentic Mexican restaurant. With the recent opening of A Taste of Mexico in Hillsboro, their dream is on its way to being fulfilled, but the journey has not been easy.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon. PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD – A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon.

Carolina was born in the United States, but grew up in the barely-there town of San Jose del Vergel in central Mexico. She left school after the sixth grade to help at her father’s grocery store. At 17, she embarked on a pilgrimage to a better life in Oregon, where two of her brothers lived. Because her mother had been born in Colorado, her American citizenship was secure, but her future was not.

Determined to flourish in her new home, Carolina learned fluent English through immersion in the American culture, and at 19 she earned her GED. Over the next 12 years she worked for several Hillsboro manufacturing companies, including Intel and White Electronics, where, 10 years ago, she met Maria.

Maria was born in Morelia, Michoacan in southern Mexico and grew up as one of 10 children in an impoverished family. Finishing school in the ninth grade and married at 15, she became the mother of three children in the next four years. At 19, she and her family slipped across the U.S. border at Tijuana and headed to Oregon.

Maria spent her first five years in the U.S. toiling under the sun in Oregon’s fields, before shifting to a cabinet-making company and several manufacturers in the Hillsboro area, including White Electronics. In the meantime, she became a proud U.S. citizen in 1988, following the passage of federal immigration reform legislation in 1986.

“After 30 years here, I feel like this is my house, my home,” she said.

About a year ago, Maria took a trip to Mexico where she saw a number of small restaurants that seemed to be doing well. When she came home, she pitched to Carolina the idea of starting a little eatery featuring all fresh authentic Mexican food.

They leased space at 3002 S.W. Cornelius Pass Road, just off TV Highway in Hillsboro, and figured all would go smoothly.

It didn’t.

They weren’t prepared when bills came in to upgrade the plumbing or re-do the walls and floors of the leased space. They weren’t prepared for all the government requirements, each with its own fee. They weren’t prepared for the multiple government inspections and dealing with the city bureaucracy.

“It took a lot more effort, time, money and everything,” Carolina said. “We almost gave up because everything was taking too long. We had thought we could be done in three months so we could open in April. It was eight months. It was harder than we expected.”

It also took $20,000.

A Taste of Mexico finally opened on Aug. 5 with a cramped kitchen, six tables and three booths squeezed into 960 square feet.

“The first week was terrible, to be honest,” Carolina said. “We were like, oh my gosh, what did we get ourselves into?”

After about two months in business, Carolina and Maria are still struggling, but more customers are coming in with each passing week and they’re increasingly hopeful.

“Our families are behind both of us,” said Carolina. “They trust us and know we’re going to make it, and we don’t want to give up the dream.”

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Oct 18, 2013