Partisan world limits laughs

Media schisms lead to less common ground, even for charity

In “Mad Men’s” season premiere, an ad agency pulls a prank on a rival. The sequence subtly speaks to an earlier time, when such industries were largely homogeneous and the combatants all knew each other, beating their brains in by day, then going out and imbibing dark liquids together after hours.

Greater diversity in these businesses has complicated such gauzy visions, especially as they pertain to captains of enterprises like entertainment, politics and sports cozily rubbing elbows with the media types who cover them. In fact, any advantages associated with the splintering of media into mini-factions, representing a disparity of interests, certainly don’t pertain to such events, making one wonder if it’s worth bothering anymore.

When comedy becomes partisan and polarized, even traditional charity dinners come with serious reservations.

The latest flare-up in this regard involves the Radio and Television Correspondents Assn. dinner, planned for June in Washington, D.C. Comic Louis C.K. pulled out as the headliner after Fox News host Greta Van Susteren proposed a boycott — calling the FX star a “pig” — based on some of his tart tweets regarding Sarah Palin.

As the Washington Post noted, there’s a lengthy history of rancor over what are supposed to be light-hearted, all-for-charity occasions, from Stephen Colbert skewering then-President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner in 2006 to the group’s much-derided decision to follow the next year with impressionist Rich Little, clearly hoping for a controversy-free evening.

“If people want to criticize the dinner, then don’t come,” then-WHCA prez Steve Scully, of C-SPAN, said at the time of the second-guessing, adding, “an evening of civility does not mean we are selling out.”

But increasingly — to those ideological warriors who have little sense of humor about their opposites, much less themselves — “selling out” barely scratches the surface.

The disconnect, moreover, isn’t unique to Washington, but can also be seen at everything from the TV Critics Assn. tour to professional sports, as stars of all varieties have become more adept at bypassing media and expressing opinions directly via social media, such as Twitter.

Just as the White House press corps has fragmented into reporters, opinion columnists and bloggers, the TCA — once an assemblage of journalists from major newspapers — is now all over the map, which is evident from the disjointed nature of the press conferences. Consumer and trade reporters, fanboys, junketeers, celebrity gossip-seekers and a few old-style critics fill the room, with questions of interest to one constituency virtually useless to most of the others.

The real soul-searching needs to be conducted by those who cling to continuing gatherings such as the D.C. dinners, hiding behind charitable endeavors to justify their existence, when access and tradition appear far more germane to their emotional investment in the events. There are ways to raise money, after all, which don’t require MSNBC and Fox News grudgingly breaking bread in the same banquet hall.

It’s easy to see why some within the media still embrace the “We’re all in this together” mentality fostered by laying down arms for a single evening. In doing so, though, they’ve not only created a source of discomfort within their ranks but set up a near-impossible scenario for entertainers venturing into these settings.

Push too hard, and you risk attending somebody’s party and appearing to spit all over the host and guests. Pull punches, and it’s easy to be labeled a powder-puff, suck-up and shill. In this climate, one man’s “fearless” is another’s “disrespectful.”

After witnessing the response to HBO’s movie “Game Change,” can anyone think of a Palin quip that would produce hearty laughs on both sides of the aisle? Moreover, even joking about politics has been exacerbated by the latest defensive strategy mounted on behalf of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, wondering why liberal political satirists like Bill Maher aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny.

Clearly, the world has changed dramatically from the white-men-in-ties uniformity of “Mad Men’s” era — and in regard to media, that means an array of options that frequently won’t even listen to each other.

Bringing them together might sound admirable, even helpful. But seeking to do so without recognizing the quarrelsome nature of the current environment — now that would be truly, deeply mad.

More TV

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content