“Rapper Kanye West Lunches with President Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.” Yes, it sounds like a MadLib, but that shouldn’t be where the analysis ends.
This is the new political normal. Politics and pop-culture are not only cohabitating, they’re married for life and in control of the nuclear football. Sure, it’s nothing new to have celebrities touch 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. An obvious data point is Ronald Reagan, the starry-eyed actor turned conservative hero. But never before now has reality television, seen by some as a bottom-of-the-barrel form of entertainment, been integral to understanding the machinations of Washington’s most powerful resident.
As West barreled his way through a lengthy diatribe in front of the Resolute Desk, there was a sense around the city, and in fact on premises, that the entire ordeal was a joke of sorts; as I stood outside on “pebble beach” Thursday morning, waiting to catch a glimpse and hopefully yell a few questions to the Chicago-based cultural phenomenon, I noticed a few reporters snicker at the gaggle of mostly younger reporters doing the same thing.
“I don’t even know what Kanye looks like!” “How do you even say his name?” “I don’t even remember what music he made”: statements like these hit my ear like a sharp Q-tip. I tried my best to provide context, explaining his long history of political advocacy, his evolution into a larger status symbol when he married into the Kardashian family, the influence of Kim Kardashian West in the clemency of Alice Marie Johnson, and so on.
But many responded to my knowledge of the family as a guilty pleasure or the leisure passions of a young girl “obsessed” with pop-culture rather than a well-sourced and -read reporter trying to ask the right questions to most important guest of the day. Later on that afternoon, I saw reporters on Twitter almost proudly admit they had “no idea” who West was. There was an undercurrent of this-is-beneath-our-work, an assumption that caring about the inner workings of pop-culture makes one a non-serious player in the Very Important world of Washington reporting.
Take a look at this exchange between two reporters I admire fondly:
What are some of Kanye West’s big songs?
— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) October 12, 2018
— Ashley Parker (@AshleyRParker) October 12, 2018
The problem is that ignorance of pop culture helped feed the less-than-relevant questions in the Oval yesterday. NFL legend Jim Brown sat next to West, and no one asked about Trump and his treatment of football players who decide to kneel as a form of protest. There was only one query about West’s memorable “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” remark after Hurricane Katrina. And that reference happened nearly a decade and a half ago, when West was standing next to someone who was at the time far more famous than he: Mike Myers. (Remember him? Yeah, baby.)
What else did people in the room miss out on? How about the relationship between Rahm Emanuel and Kanye’s friend Chance the Rapper, who recently purchased the publication Chicagoist to run Emanuel, whom he’s accused of being racist, “out of business.” Why did no one challenge West’s assertion that he married into a family—whose fame derives in part from Robert Kardashian serving on O.J. Simpson’s legal team—with little “male energy”? Some of this can be attributed to the loosely structured question-and-answer period during the pool spray, but it’s not a stretch to say that there were reporters outdoors who might have known enough about how Kylie Jenner built a near-billion-dollar cosmetics company to craft a follow-up. (Stipulated: I am still not sure what that Unabomber business was all about.)
Reporters are expected to be able to dive into many topics and at least discuss them intelligently. And yet so few are literate when it comes to entertainment. If I can get up to speed on steel and aluminum tariffs, shouldn’t everyone else at least have some familiarity with the industry from which our principal subject hails? The President, for better or for worse, could probably speak for a while on how the Taylor-Kanye Snapchat debacle of 2016 could affect the midterms. If that’s nothing but wild speech to you, you should ask yourself why.