We’ll Always Have Dan Rather

Conservatives gather in D.C. to mock the media and panic about Romney.

RNC chairman Reince Priebus talks to conservative donor Foster Friess.

RNC chairman Reince Priebus talks to conservative donor Foster Friess after the Media Research Center’s gala dinner on Thursday in Washington, DC.

Photo by David Weigel.

The invitation is noncommittal and polite—“black tie appreciated.” Most people oblige. Shortly after 6 p.m., the National Building Museum fills up with happy conservatives in their best clothes for the Media Research Center’s gala. The Great Hall, 316 feet long with a 70-foot ceiling, is separated into one early-evening bar, one late-evening bar, and a dining room with 100-odd tables for 1,000 guests.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, grabs a glass of water from the bar. A woman in a red dress buttonholes Perkins and talks about all those polls showing Mitt Romney losing to Barack Obama. “The polls said Ted Cruz was going to lose in Texas,” she says. “So why do we trust the polls?”

Does Perkins think the polls are wrong? “I do,” he says. “Just anecdotally, I’ve been all over the country, and it’s a night-and-day difference between 2008 and 2012. The apathy that dominated in 2008 is gone.” But the media—the media is worse than it was, even then. “They don’t even hide their bias anymore,” says Perkins. “They just very clearly attack conservatives and conservative ideas, and appear to be in the tank for Barack Obama. When the president uses his bully pulpit to attack marriage, they can portray people who disagree with the president as extremists. So they do.”

The MRC is celebrating 25 years in the business of mocking, debunking, and protesting the mainstream media. It did not invent this mission, but it mastered it. Accuracy in Media, founded in 1969 as Richard Nixon’s allies were honing an anti-MSM case, pulls in less than $1 million per year. The MRC raised $12.6 million last year, funding everything from the Newsbusters blog to the Newsbusted webcast to Founder and President Brent Bozell’s tireless campaign against “raunch.”

Right now, they’re sort of losing. The whole conservative apparatus that’s supposed to cancel out media bias—it’s not working. Barack Obama’s winning. The Huffington Post is providing AOL’s political coverage. MSNBC reverse-engineered Fox News’ approach to proud, ideological news analysis, and it’s beating CNN. (Disclosure: I’m a contributor to MSNBC.) Before the dinner starts, I run into Accuracy in Media’s Cliff Kincaid. He tells me to read his latest column, but since we’re pressed for time, he sums it up: Mitt Romney refuses to take on the media, and it’s ruining him.

“Too many of Romney’s advisers are going to make money no matter who wins,” says Kincaid. On the other hand, there’s Joel Gilbert, who’s been trying (with AIM’s help) to sell a movie about Obama’s alleged genetic ties to Frank Marshall Davis, a black Communist who mentored the future president. The media won’t read the FBI file that AIM secured four years ago. Gilbert can’t get newspapers to take his money for full-page ads promoting the Davis theory. “It’s so bad this time you can’t even pay to get your ads in the Washington Post and USA Today!” Gilbert is now sending his movie to “millions” of households through the mail, so there are ways around the media, but it’s hardly convenient.

At 7 p.m. we’re ushered into the dining hall. Our tables face a stage flanked by titanic TV screens and ceiling-high banners. The DisHonors Awards, the annual prizes for the most ludicrous on-camera quotes from the media, will be splayed across those banners and those screens. Bozell, wearing the kind of white tuxedo coat that James Bond prefers in Monaco, is visible from multiple angles. The audience mills around, and then the screens switch to an image of Keith Olbermann, vintage footage from the MSNBC days. “Shut the hell up,” thunders Max Headroom/Olbermann. We do.

Before we start making fun of the press, we’re inculcated with culture. Our invocation will come from the Rev. Terence Henry of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, who’d been hard to miss, walking through the tuxedoed throngs in a black robe.

“Father Terence made national news,” says the emcee, “when he announced that, in response to President Obama’s attack on religious freedoms, Franciscan University was going to drop its student health program rather than participate in ‘a plan that requires us to violate the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church and the sacredness of human life.’ ” It’s the first big applause line of the night. Henry takes his place and quotes G.K. Chesterton: “We do not need censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.” That’s the second applause line. Then the Pledge of Allegiance is led, via video, by Bozell’s son and some his fellow marines in Afghanistan. The Great Hall fills up with applause.

A banner introduces one of the awards at the Media Research Center's gala dinner.

A banner introduces one of the awards at the Media Research Center’s gala dinner on Thursday in Washington, DC.

Photo by David Weigel.

On to the awards. Every year, in Los Angles, the Razzies parody the Academy Awards by giving worst-of prizes to actors and movies and screenwriters. The DisHonor Awards ceremony doesn’t actually satirize real journalism prizes. It’s a clip show, formatted like an Oscars night, with special guests opening red envelopes and giving “The Obamagasm Award” or the “Damn Those Conservatives to Hell Award” to some MSM chucklehead.

The focus on videos means that the MRC is mocking the demand side of news, not the supply side. The clips don’t often capture reporters spreading actual misinformation, or breaking the wrong news. They’re asking leading questions. They’re quoting devil’s advocate groups. NBC’s Ann Curry, briefly the co-host of the Today show, wins the “Damn Those Conservatives” prize because she asked Paul Ryan to respond to numbers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities about his proposed budget cuts.

“Listen as she rattles off a series of talking points from an official-sounding group,” says National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who is editing an MRC script as he goes along. “Unfortunately it isn’t. It’s just another far-left, pro-Obama outfit.”

The screen displays the MRC’s logo, which transforms into video—literally, the metallic voodoo sound from Transformers blasts through the PA. Curry reads the CBPP’s numbers to Ryan. “This says that 8 to 10 million people would be kicked off of food stamps,” says Curry. “Where is the empathy in this budget? Do you acknowledge that poor people will suffer in this budget? That you’ve shown a lack of empathy to the poor?”

The audience groans. “Paul Ryan deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for not beating her about the head and neck with a frozen flounder,” says Goldberg.

The presentation is long—two and a half hours of videos and speeches. It’s been extended by the MRC’s added video tributes of TV news bias “through the years.” Watching it, I agree with the Perkinses and Kincaids—conservative media isn’t having the leveling effect that it used to. We see many minutes of Dan Rather going on air with his 2004 story about George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, then retracting the story because the key document was forged, then, years later, refusing to apologize.

New conservative media—talk radio, blogs, message boards, Drudge—claimed his scalp. One of the key blogs, Powerline, was profiled by Time magazine. “Rathergate” changed the audience’s relationship with the media. The problem came when the left figured that out. The MRC inspired a left-wing, bizarro twin: Media Matters. If ThinkProgress or Talking Points Memo has a hit, it winds up on MSNBC or The Daily Show, and gets into the conversation.

All of this can dampen a night of ha-ha-media japery. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus accepts an award on behalf of Chris Matthews, then—in the sort of language you don’t always hear at a 501(c)3’s gala—assures the audience “we’re going to fire Barack Obama and end this European nightmare.” Laura Ingraham, one of the celebrity presenters, reveals a “remember when that thing happened?” approach to comedy, and reminds the crowd of Barack Obama’s tribute to Al Green.

Ahhhm sooo in love with yoouu,” Ingraham sings. “Wasn’t that—I mean, come on! Can you imagine Mitt Romney doing that?” She sings the same lines, in a soulless voice. The laughter’s not there. “I know this is the MRC, but we take on both sides.”

Do we have to? The dinner ends, and we move over to the second bar. Romney’s campaign is still the only conversation starter, the black hole into which all other gossip is pulled. One Republican media strategist tells me that Romney has failed to go large on tax policy. A Newsbuster tells me that Romney should use more charts. We can make fun of the media, but we can’t seem to break through them. Whose fault is it?

At midnight, the lights go up and the party moves to a nearby hotel. Friends of the MRC get red wristbands, open bar access, and access to trays of bar food. Before I leave, I talk to the Republican mega-donor Foster Friess, one of the evening’s “diamond” sponsors. (The other was “Anonymous.”) “I’m going to hang out and raise a little hell!” he jokes. He ends up sitting with a reporter for the Daily Caller, the news site that Friess helped found with some 2010 seed capital. The parodies are done for the year. The battle to replace the liberal MSM never ends.