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The night the news died

TV's inability on Saturday to break away from the self-congratulatory fluff of the White House Correspondents Association to cover real news felt like the death of something that once brought us together.

"We don't control a lot of this stuff. We sort of make our best choices, and we'll—we'll catch up."

-- CNN commentator Errol Louis, speaking Saturday night on CNN's non-coverage of social unrest in Baltimore.

The end came shortly before 9 p.m. on a nippy spring Saturday night. We'd all seen it coming for years, especially after the heart-attack-like shock of the Iraq War years in the early 2000s, when elite journalists pinned an American flag to their lapels and left their skepticism back home in the closet. But the awkward, babbling explanations by Louis and his fellow CNN panelists about why they -- and, in fairness, their competitors on MSNBC, Fox and even Al-Jazeera America -- were pathologically unable to ditch their black-tie-dyed puffball coverage of the D.C. media's so-called "nerd prom"  truly felt like the respirator plug had finally been yanked, violently, from the wall.

It was a death of an idea that had once thrived and then hobbled through its old age -- that Big Media was something could drive the national conversation, that bringing graphic images and hard realities about the things that matter into America's living rooms was their noble primary. That moving pictures could make a damn difference.

To call what happened on Saturday night a slow-motion train wreck would be to attribute too much momentum to the thing -- it was more like a guy slowly walking 500 paces into a brick wall and breaking his nose. It was clear that TV planning for the big event, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, featuring President Obama, had been in the work for months. Once upon a time, this WHCA dinner (which annually also stars a comedian; last night it was Cecily Strong of SNL) was an okay idea -- schlubby journalists and the officials they cover getting dressed up for one night, drinking a lot of wine, sharing some bawdy jokes and raising a few dollars for scholarships.

Then came the long downward spiral of red carpets, celebrity "dates," and media obsession, in which the cable networks like CNN and MSNBC devote hours to comedian-laced panels of pundits analyzing and trumpeting their own event; MSNBC even halts its profitable celebration of mass incarceration in America, "Lockup," to cover this as a major breaking event. It mattered not that -- in the years after the self-congratulatory press corps failed to ask tough questions about Iraq, after affairs like the Valerie Plame leak scandal revealed how the notion of afflicting the comfortable had succumbed to cozy access -- the whole thing looked so unseemly to most folks. Even when Steven Colbert showed up in 2006 to address the whole emperor-clothes issue -- telling journalists to go home and write that novel "about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration?...You know, fiction!" -- it didn't kill the party vibe. (For a clever take on everything that went wrong, read this Jay Rosen essay).

No, only one thing could really screw things up last night, actual important news. The day started with unspeakable tragedy in Nepal with news of a massive earthquake and an ever-rising death toll -- the kind of overseas natural disaster that cried out for coverage, not only for the human interest but to drive a global response and donations for the victims. (If you wish to donate, here is more info.) As night fell, another type of tremor -- a social one -- was hitting much closer to home. Less than an hour up I-95 from the posh ballroom where the correspondents and President Obama were gathering, tensions over policing seemed about to erupt in a major American city. The violent killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spine was snapped in the custody of Baltimore police who'd stopped him for no obvious reason, is an American tragedy, driving thousands of people into the streets on Saturday. Most were peaceful, but some young people on the fringes shattered windows, looted convenience stores, and stomped on police cruisers. Some 40,000 baseball fans at Camden Yards were abruptly told by city officials that it wasn't safe to leave.

Think about that for a moment, in relation to TV news. CNN and their rival networks have been known to cut away from regular programming to show planes with stuck landing gear circling a runway, or random police chases of random suspects in a random city. But now a city telling 40,000 people not to leave a baseball game because of social unrest, albeit briefly, wasn't news? Are you kidding me? More important was the broader stakes, that the citizens of a great American city, stripped of its factories and caught between high crime and appalling levels of police brutality, were trying to make a statement, that their lives mattered. But to the Beltway revelers...they just didn't.

I was watching CNN, and you could feel the awkward. nervous tension. Even the host Poppy Harlow and the guests acknowledged that people in the CNN newsroom were watching Twitter and other social media, and they knew that the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore were all that folks wanted to talk about. But they just couldn't break away from the their inane prattling about looming White House humor. At one point, I watched the comedian D.L. Hughley wonder if Obama would mention "what's going on in Baltimore." Even as CNN (and, again, its rivals) weren't telling America "what's going on in Baltimore." Apparently the media was hoping that Obama would bail them out by bringing up the subject? That's incredible.

Finally came the monologue from New York journalist and regular CNN contributor Louis, which is surely on its way to the Museum of Broadcasting for posterity as we speak. Here's a transcript (you can also watch the video below):

This is always about choices, right? -- I mean, you have to make a decision, what are you going to do with these two hours of time, and we...CNN made its decisions and is sticking to its plan and so forth, and anyway, yes, 12 people were arrested and the Baltimore police have tweeted that, you can find that out now, and you can find a live feed if you want to actually want to watch what's going on. It sounds like complete chaos, the cops are apparently keeping people in Camden Yards where the Orloles game is winding down. They don't want more people going into the streets.

(Harlow interjects: "We don't have that confirmed right now.") [Note: It was on the Jumbotron at Camden Yards, as seen by the multitudes on Twitter.] It's not confirmed, but it's what I'm seeing on Twitter, And you can find out what you want to find out, and, you know, something else is going on...the most powerful man in the world is going to tell some jokes. It's an odd set of circumstances -- but it was an odd set of circumstances when he told jokes on the same day they were killing bin Laden. We don't control a lot of this stuff. We sort of make our best choices and we'll catch up, people will be informed. They'll find out about the scholarship winners [Note: The ones being announced at the dinner, an aspect that CNN was ignoring], they'll find out all of what was happening in the streets of Baltimore, by this time tomorrow.

With an assist from this Twitter user, I felt I finally understood for the first time was Gil-Scott Heron was talking about. The revolution, indeed, will not be televised. This monologue by Errol Louis, and everything that led up to it, was truly a watershed moment in the history of American television news. CNN was going to do it's fluff-laden thing, and they weren't going to let a little thing like "news" interfere. News is now a DIY affair, something you need to navigate on your own, kind of like collecting stamps.

Does that matter? You can argue that -- and many already have -- thanks to Twitter and information sharing on blogs and social media, big mainstream media such as CNN and the cable networks have been dying the slow death of irrelevancy for years. True, but it's important to remember and understand how this changes "the game" of political and social change in America.

I'm thinking of two big anniversaries this year. In March, much attention was rightly paid to the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the epic changes that followed. While the courage of the marchers remains paramount, one media decision played a key role. At ABC, network bosses raced to get footage of troopers beating black marchers onto national TV, interrupting a heavily promoted broadcast of the award-winning movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" (Ironic? Very much so!). That shared experience by millions of Americans drove support for a just cause, so much so that the legislation passed Congress in a matter of weeks.

This week, you'll hear a lot about the Vietnam War -- the escalation and initial protests that took place a half-century ago this spring, and the fall of Saigon exactly 40 years ago. Throughout that decade, it was television -- a relatively new medium then -- that brought the war home for Americans, and turned the tide of public opinion, including Walter Cronkite's famous 1968 editorial calling for a U.S. withdrawal. If Vietnam had happened today, would CBS have told us to check out Twitter and come back in 24 hours?

So not all news is dead (check out last week's Pulitzer winners for more proof), but the idea of Big News on a national scale is clearly no longer with us. Newer media like Twitter can be an exciting place to hang out at times of momentous events, but still, something is also lost. Twitter is the "urban warfare" of social change -- one house at a time, and America's lack of equity doesn't really have that much time. When "the whole world is watching" events like the 1968 Chicago police riot, that becomes a rapid engine for change (not all of it good, perhaps); in 2015, televised images of Baltimore, of Nepal, of important events could amplify Twitter -- but TV's attitude is a giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Especially when the most powerful man in the world is telling a few jokes!

Indeed, there was some coverage of the policing issues raised in Baltimore that found their way onto CNN Saturday night. It came during comedian Strong's monologue, when she said: "Let's give it up for the Secret Service. I don't want to be too hard on those guys. You know, because they're the only law enforcement agency that will get in trouble if a black man gets shot."

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.