For its 2019 dinner, the White House Correspondents' Association skipped the traditional comedian and invited a historian instead.
Ron Chernow buttered up every journalist in the room by proclaiming: "You folks in the media write the early drafts of history, and we historians the later ones. Your work gives freshener and color and immediacy to our sagas. ... you do noble work to preserve democracy."
Everyone in the room understood the code words here. "Preserving democracy" is equated with opposing President Donald Trump. "Democracy" means removing Trump from office. His election could cause democracy to "die in darkness."
So the "first draft of history" isn't some disinterested chronicle. It's an energetic, never-ending crusade to steer history to the media's preferred outcome, the "right side of history."
This ends-justify-the-means approach to journalism can lead to embarrassing results.
The Valentine's Day conviction of anti-Trump activist and lawyer Michael Avenatti on three charges of extorting Nike seems like a direct result of the media's feverish desire to force their "first draft" on the country.
In 2018, liberal media elites desperately hoped that porn star Stormy Daniels — with Avenatti's legal expertise — would take Trump down on campaign finance violations, given that he paid her to shut up and stop claiming that she slept with him. It's why Trump-detesting pundit Ana Navarro on "The View" compared the porn star's lawyer to the Holy Spirit.
Avenatti's attacks evolved into other controversies including an embarrassing turn during the Supreme Court hearings of Brett Kavanaugh; he touted Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick, and her wild and unproven charges that Kavanaugh facilitated a gang rape at a house party when he was a teenager.
The "first draft of history": unfair and unfactual.
On Friday, CBS led its evening newscast with a segment on Avenatti's conviction. Anchor Norah O'Donnell reported, "For a time, Avenatti was a fixture on cable TV and Twitter, but federal prosecutors say he threatened to use all that media access to hurt the athletic company's reputation ..."
CNN and MSNBC gave Avenatti a total of 230 interviews in one year. ABC, CBS and NBC added another 24. All that airtime was worth millions of dollars in free publicity. In the middle of that year, the Washington Free Beacon estimated the publicity on just CNN and MSNBC was worth $175 million. This doesn't even count other star turns on TV, like when Avenatti was toasted during late-show appearances with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Maher joked, "A lawyer got a standing ovation." Avenatti was called "Trump's worst nightmare."
After the conviction, CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy comically noted in a newsletter, "Fox (predictably) characterized Avenatti as a 'media darling.'" This is like calling rain wet.
Avenatti took all that media-donated notoriety and attempted to intimidate Nike with it. Reporters actually applauded his tactics. NBC's Anne Thompson touted Avenatti for "playing his brand of hardball with Nike." When it all blew up in his face, after NBC and MSNBC had interviewed Avenatti 113 times, after they had touted Swetnick's unsubstantiated rape claims, NBC gave the news of his conviction only 20 seconds.
The media regrets are few today. They bubbled up last May when his legal troubles couldn't be ignored. In addition to the Nike extortion, he was indicted for allegedly stealing nearly $300,000 from Stormy Daniels. He was also indicted for allegedly stealing most of a $4 million settlement from a paraplegic. In November, he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.
This wasn't the media's first draft on Avenatti, and the second draft often drew a 20-second brief or a newspaper story on page A-22. Journalists ought to give themselves a stern look in the mirror, and understand why they should be a little less impressed with themselves for the We Save Democracy claptrap.
(Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and executive editor of the blog NewsBusters.org.)