The White House Correspondents’ Dinner happened this weekend and mostly no one cared, rightly, until some journalists thought it was a good idea to criticize a comedian for telling the truth, which is what both comedians and journalists are supposed to do.
Michelle Wolf was the comedian at this year’s dinner, and made some jokes about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that were both funny and pointed, in that they pointed directly at Sanders’ penchant for lying to the press.
“I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Axios, the website launched by diehard Beltway insiders Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen (both formerly of Politico), wrote a pearl-clutching sentence detailing how Wolf “made several uses of a vulgarity that begins with “p,” in an audience filled with Washington officials, top journalists and a few baseball legends (Brooks Robinson, Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley),” apparently forgetting that those Washington officials work for a president who got elected despite a taped conversation in which he boasted of his penchant for grabbing women by that vulgarity that begins with “p.” The president’s defense was that such language was “locker room talk,” so ostensibly those baseball legends were not new to that particular “vulgarity.”
The fact that Sanders lies habitually, and attacks the press, is just that: a fact. Even White House fanboy Chris Cillizza has taken her to task for this. Journalism’s guardian angel, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, has argued that the consistent lying has made it such that “press briefings are so devoid of substance, so predictably filled with lies, that they aren’t a valid use of top reporters’ time.”
But reporters’ responses to Wolf advocating for truth at a dinner supposedly devoted to the First Amendment makes one wonder if they might be losing their ability to discern lies from truth, or forgetting that truth is our paramount goal.
New York Times reporter Peter Baker tweeted, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” It’s unclear whether he was commenting on Wolf’s performance or the absurdity of the act of news outlets spending money so their reporters can drink and eat undoubtedly gross food with the powerful people they’re supposed to be covering with a discerning, skeptical, truth-seeking eye.
The purpose of the WHCD is ostensibly fundraising, but the amount of money it raises for scholarships is paltry, especially considering how much money an event in that type of venue typically raises. The tables are sold for a fraction of the price that is customary at such galas, likely in order to allow government officials to purchase them without breaking rules. Tickets for the dinner can’t be purchased by anyone who isn’t a member of the White House Correspondents Association.
Kyle Cheney, a reporter who covers Congress for Politico, tweeted that Wolf “undermined an otherwise meaningful night.”
“Michelle Wolf didn’t fail just because she was (spectacularly) one-sided. It was because she was unnecessarily cruel on a night the WHCA was trying to showcase decency and purpose,” he wrote.
The thing is, the only thing Wolf was one-sided about was the primacy of truth, which is the side on which journalists are also supposed to be. She skewered media and politicians alike. And it’s unclear what is meaningful about this dinner. From the outside, it is an embarrassingly solipsistic affair that makes its participants look upsettingly in need of social lives.
NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell, who earlier this week saw fit to use her high profile to denigrate the women less powerful than her who spoke up about being abused by Tom Brokaw, insisted on Twitter that Sanders was “owed an apology.”
Maybe Mitchell was actually upset about Wolf’s “Uncle Tom but for white women” dig.
Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who watched the event on television (NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet doesn’t believe reporters should attend the dinner), praised Sanders for sitting through the event.
But presidents have sat through the same and worse for years, to little or no praise. I remember watching Stephen Colbert roast President George W. Bush in 2006 and cringing through fingers covering my eyes, marveling at Colbert’s ability to stand just feet away from the leader of the free world and call him out while looking him in the face. This is what comedy at its best does: It holds an unforgiving mirror up to generally unquestioned power; it’s the little kid in the crowd who shouts that the emperor has no clothes. At its best, it’s a collective conscience, delivered with humor instead of high-handedness.
Mika Brzezinski, the MSNBC co-host who was shilling for the president until he made crude comments accusing her of having plastic surgery, tweeted, “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.”
Setting aside that Wolf didn’t actually attack Sanders’ appearance (though some felt the softball joke was a pointed jab), it’s interesting that Brzezinski seems to think women are only off-limits to vile attacks if they’re married and have procreated. It’s a very Handmaid’s Tale valuation of women, which is notable in part because of the reaction to Wolf congratulating Sanders on her role as Aunt Lydia on the show. A large group of people who apparently cannot consider any woman distinct from her physical appearance decided this had to do with Sanders’ appearance, rather than her position upholding an authoritarian regime hell-bent on the subjugation of women and ethnic minorities.
Which brings us to journalists’ general silence when Trump and his lackeys say cruel things about Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants. Journalists believe they must remain mum, lest they appear biased. God forbid one has a bias against racism; that must be an enormous handicap in performing journalism in a nation that is projected to not have a racial or ethnic majority within the next four decades. The same night that Wolf made her true statements at the correspondents’ dinner, Trump supporters at a Trump event booed the mention of “Hispanics,” literally condemning an entire ethnicity — for the second time in a single week.
They also booed, at the president’s behest, the press as a whole. According to BuzzFeed reporter Brianna Sacks, one of his supporters remained after the rally ended, roaring angrily at members of the press that they were “degenerate filth” and should “get out of [his] country.”
At the rally, Trump vowed to “shut down the country” if he doesn’t get his Mexico wall. Meanwhile, the reporters we are trusting to hold him and his administration accountable were clinking glasses with the subjects of their scrutiny, tsk-tsking a comedian for telling the truth at their invitation, and “swarmed” Sanders at an after-party to express condolences that Wolf had said the truth on television, and to her face. According to The New York Times, Sanders seized the swarm as an opportunity “to chastise one journalist for asking a question at a news conference that she disliked.”
This is embarrassing on so many levels. It’s disappointing. Access journalism exists, to be sure, and from everything I’ve heard from colleagues at major papers, has felt more necessary than ever under this administration, when a tweet from an arts columnist criticizing Trump’s immigration policies causes calls to be made to politics desks accusing the paper of anti-Trump bias. BuzzFeed media reporter Steven Perlberg deemed the dinner “perfect,” as it allowed “the media to finger-wag about decency, look Very Fair to the White House, grease some Trump orbit sources in the process, and complain about the dinner like every year (while also attending).”
Certainly, it’s hard to view the gratuitous sympathetic tweets tagging @PressSec and the post-party “swarming” as anything other than thirsty, performative source-greasing. And I suppose reporters do what they must to get the stories they can. But I’d encourage them to avoid signaling to the American people that you either don’t realize or don’t care that we are being lied to every day, that we can’t trust you to recognize authoritarianism and fascism when you see it, that you are so far removed from the life of “citizen” in your pursuit of information of these elites that when they’re separating us into Childless Unmarrieds and Women Deserving of Respect, you’re not going to sit by quietly, unable to speak out, lest you show “bias” that inhibits your ability to claim an EXCLUSIVE! SCOOP! handed to you by officials who have decided they’re okay with that information getting out.
It seems so obvious. And yet. The White House Correspondents Association issued a statement condemning Wolf on Sunday. “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” wrote WHCA chief Margaret Talev. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Ms. Talev, the administration with which you are so eager to curry favor does not share your mission. While you were busy tripping over yourself to condemn a comedian for telling the truth, the Justice Department deleted language about press freedom — and racial gerrymandering, an issue very important to the public you serve — from its internal manual. You could have learned about that from BuzzFeed, one of the outlets that doesn’t attend your dinner on principle. Where is your statement on that?
This silly dinner has been defended as a well-deserved “night off.” Take an actual night off. Talk to people who still answer questions truthfully. It can’t be that hard, even in Washington, D.C., to find a reason to dress up nice and hang with friends.