Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner continues to be a matter of national outrage for some, which I find both highly amusing and highly indicative of one of the central problems with the media. Not to mention — yet — what it reveals about thin-skinned and hypocritical conservatives.
Trump threw a little tantrum on Twitter and some of his aides walked out of the dinner with a horrible case of the vapors because Wolf told a few pointed jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway being liars. Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents Association, quickly genuflected, bowing and scraping before Herr Trump and saying that point of the dinner was to give a “unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press” and that Wolf’s performance was “not in the spirit of that mission.”
So here’s problem #1: How do you send a “unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press” without targeting an administration that despises that idea to the core? How many times does Trump have to spout rhetoric or take actions that are manifestly opposed to the idea of a free press before that unifying message should really be aimed directly at him and his enablers? For crying out loud, his attorney general just removed concerns about a free press from the U.S. Attorneys Manual. Trump himself has called the media the “enemy of the American people,” rhetoric that draws directly from fascist ideology.
The job of a free press is to call the powerful to account. That is the sole reason it exists. But the WHCD has long been about schmoozing it up with the government, flattering them to ensure continued access to leaks (which the government will then rail against after doing the leaking). The Economist, which has long refused to send anyone to the dinner, nailed this one:
After the speech, Mr Trump’s people pressed their advantage. Mrs Schlapp told a reporter that “journalists should not be the ones to say that the president or his spokesman is lying.”
This raises an obvious question—if not journalists, then whom?—with an equally obvious answer: nobody. Mr Trump’s communication staff would prefer it if nobody pointed out when he and his media team lie.
Ms Talev invited Mrs Sanders to sit at the head table because she “thought it sent an important decision about…government and the press being able to work together.” But of course, that is precisely what should never happen, particularly with an administration as ambivalent about the First Amendment—among other norms and laws—as this one…
Calls for press-corps civility are in fact calls for servility, and should be received with contempt. Some might argue that insults do not deserve the same protection as investigative journalism, but that is a distinction without a difference. Anyone who wants to outlaw or apologise for the former will end up too timid to do the latter.In open societies, self-censorship—in the name of civility, careerism or access preservation—is a much greater threat to the media than outright repression. The only person owed an apology here is Ms Wolf, for being scolded by the very people who invited her to speak, and who purport to defend a “vigorous and free press.”
We have a press that is far too docile, lap dogs rather than attack dogs. They have been rendered ineffective by their fear of conservative rhetoric about how biased they are. But despite a handful of really good reporters doing a terrific job, the primary bias of the press is toward maintaining their access. That’s how you keep your job, it’s how you get big stories leaked to you. That is undoubtedly why even Maggie Haberman, who has done such terrific reporting on the Trump administration, quickly leaped to the defense of Sanders and tsk tsk’d like a snooty schoolmarm.
And then we have the Trumpkins, who clutched their pearls so tightly that they probably crushed them. The feigned outrage poured down from the mountaintops like Noah’s flood, all of it hypocritical and disingenuous. Let me show you this:
That is a full two pages in the New York Times from October, 2016. It’s a list of all of the people, leaders and countries Trump had insulted during the campaign. If the list were updated now, it would take twice as much space. Trump fans were so eager to defend Sanders from another woman calling her a liar — which she is, of course — but not one of them raised a peep when Trump was calling women pigs, dogs and too ugly to rape. So really, you want to pretend to be a feminist defending women now? Seriously?
These are, of course, the same people who find no obscenity at all in watching refugees die, kids go hungry, families that are homeless, massive racial injustice and the killing of millions in war are suddenly going all verklempt over a comedian making mean jokes about people who lie for a living. Could any reasonable person possibly take their outrage seriously?
So here we have the media, so eager to maintain their access and suck up to a man who considers them the enemy of the people, and conservatives, absolutely desperate to paint themselves as perpetual victims of some mysterious “elite” that they are somehow not a part of despite controlling all three branches of government and most of American industry. It’s all so shameless and ridiculous that, frankly, it makes me ashamed to be part of a country that doesn’t see through it easily.