The nation’s political media apparently decided to hold a little contest yesterday: Which outlets can produce the most gratuitous, the least insightful, and perhaps even the most offensive coverage of the White House “suds summit”?

The bar was sure to be high, even with cable news disqualified on the grounds that it has an unfair advantage, having honed its skills for just such a challenge over the last decade. While the initial Gates/Crowley affair, for all its baggage, was a legitimate news story, yesterday’s beer party was a straight photo op—just the sort of contrived event that the press loves to mock even as while indulging in it. And so, even restricting the entrants to three of the country’s most influential publications—The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico—the competition was strong.

Politico—famous for its hyper-obsession with horse race politics, notorious for indiscriminate electron-spilling on trivialities, and criticized for often missing the forest for the trees—should have been the favorite coming in. Thursday night, the headline on Josh Gerstein’s story carried a blunt verdict: “‘Beer summit’ letdown.” (The headline has been changed on the updated version of the story.) Here’s Gerstein:

But the portion of the event aired on TV had an anti-climactic feel, and in many ways was exactly what Obama had said it would be earlier – the men sitting around having a drink. One surprise was the addition of Vice President Joe Biden.

Analysts of race relations said the benefits of the White House encounter were murky, at best.

What a disappointment! Because, up until it happened, this whole thing had seemed like it might be a reprise of the March on Washington. Even the president had promised… oh, right. Like the story says, he had promised just what we got—a few guys sitting around drinking beer. The decision to arrange the photo op was not a particularly proud moment for the president. But the press, which knows this game perfectly well, could never have really expected the beer summit to be, in Obama’s clichéd formulation, a “teachable moment.” Pretending otherwise is simply disingenuous.


In the video aired on TV, Crowley and Gates were clad in suits, and while Obama and Biden were in shirtsleeves as an aide delivered beers in frosty mugs. Crowley was seen sipping his beer during the brief photo-op, while Obama and Biden could be seen digging into a bowl of pretzels and peanuts.

Crowley also did the most talking during the few minutes the press was invited to watch, from a distance of about 40 feet.”

I’m not sure who is more demeaned in this scene, the press or the people they’re covering. Call it a tie. I do know that, for the first time since the initial incident, reading this passage—and watching the accompanying video, which is just as enthralling as the story suggests—made me feel sorry for Sgt. Crowley. The other three men around that table, by virtue of their celebrity, had some prior sense of what it’s like to be treated as though you’re on exhibit in a zoo. For Crowley, it must have been a novel experience.

All in a day’s work for Politico, though, which was recently described by Glenn Greenwald as the embodiment of “everything rotted in politics & media.” What’s disappointing is that The New York Times so readily joined in. The Grey Lady, confronted with the same constraints as every other paper in the industry, the same tough choices about how to deploy scare resources, decided to assign not one, not two, but three reporters to live-blog the event. So, did the Times’s talented troika wring any legitimate news or insight out of the meeting? Let’s see:

It’s Begun | 6:24 p.m.

Helene Cooper: At 6:12, reporters and photographers were allowed in for a scant 40 seconds, where they could view the four men sitting around a table drinking out of frosty beer mugs. Four men, you ask? Weren’t there supposed to be three—President Obama, Professor Gates, and Sgt. Crowley?

And Vice President Joseph Biden! He was there too. In fact, during the brief time that the press could watch the goings-on, Mr. Biden leaned across the table towards Sgt. Crowley and said something. At another point, Sgt. Crowley gesturing with his hands, said something to Professor Gates.

And then, the press was ushered out.

Thrilling stuff!

But how about the analysis? Well, at 4:57, Jeff Zeleny provided this thought: “Regardless of the wisdom or accuracy of his words at the White House news conference last week, Mr. Obama seemed to be speaking spontaneously and with passion. Don’t look for a repeat of that anytime soon.” Helene Cooper concurred: “So I think what’s he’s learned from this is that as president, he can’t really say what he thinks.”

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.