The Media Today

The predictable outrage over the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

April 30, 2018

In what has become a rite of spring, journalists spent the last Sunday in April arguing over mean things said by a comedian. Michelle Wolf’s scorched earth set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner drove conversation on morning shows and social media over the past 36 hours, shining a spotlight on an event already under fire for the aura of sycophancy and chumminess that comes with journalists, administration officials, and celebrities yukking it up in a Washington ballroom.

Wolf’s routine took aim, in occasionally vulgar terms, at the mendacity of the Trump White House, with especially critical jokes directed at Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who was sitting just feet from the comedian at the main table. Her jokes drew immediate condemnation from figures on the right, and President Trump weighed in Sunday night, calling the evening “an embarrassment to everyone associated with it.” Mainstream reporters also voiced their frustration at the tone of the set, with The New York Times’s Peter Baker writing, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.”

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Lost in the arguments over civility were Wolf’s most stinging indictments of the media. She questioned the perceived animosity between the press and the president in an extended riff: “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you use to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric. But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.” She ended her set with an exclamation, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water!” that highlighted the overwhelming focus on the Trump administration, which forces other stories off the front pages.

The outrage over Wolf’s words reflects the polarization of the current era. As CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope noted, there was really no way for the event to go off without controversy. “The #WHCD debacle was inevitable, destined to be either sycophantic, on one extreme, or mean spirited, on the other,” Pope tweeted. “Neither is a good look at a time when trust in media is tenuous. Can we finally all agree to put an end to this thing?” It’s probably too much to ask that the dinner will be shut down, but expect some changes, if only in the form of a more conservative comedian, next year.

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The White House Correspondents’ Association has always responded to criticisms—many of which predated the Trump era—with an argument that the dinner serves as a celebration of the First Amendment and an opportunity to raise money for scholarships. But the spectacle, centered on celebrity attendees and the comedic routine, has long overshadowed those goals. Controversy over the president’s attendance or the tone of the jokes allows media outlets to debate civility and lament the current state of discourse, adding a couple of rings to the circus. The result doesn’t serve anyone beyond cable news producers who don’t have to think too hard about what topic will fill their airtime. If the impact of Michelle Wolf’s set is that it results in fundamental changes to, or even the abolishment of, the dinner, she will have done a service to journalism.

Below, more on the reaction to the WHCD.

  • Time for the WHCD to end?: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues that the 2018 dinner should be the last. “It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” she writes. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”
  • No, Wolf didn’t attack Sarah Sanders’ appearance: One of the main criticisms of Wolf’s routine was based on a joke she never made. While the comedian lambasted Trump aides Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway for lying, Vulture’s Jen Chaney refutes the claim that Wolf said anything negative about their looks.
  • Confirming criticisms: Politico’s Tim Alberta tweets: “Every caricature thrust upon the national press—that we are culturally elitist, professionally incestuous, socioeconomically detached and ideologically biased—is confirmed by this trainwreck of an event. Journalists, the joke’s on us. The WHCD is broken. Fix it or end it.”
  • A win for Trump?: Axios’s Mike Allen writes that the event provided a boost from Trump’s media criticism, arguing that the press handed the president a “big, embarassing win.
  • Misplaced focus: BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg weighs in on the ridiculousness of it all: “The Michelle Wolf WHCD performance allows the media to finger-wag about decency, look Very Fair to the WH, grease some trump orbit sources in the process, and complain about the dinner like every year (while also attending). It’s perfect!”
  • Trump’s counterprogramming: President Trump spent Saturday evening in Washington Township, Michigan, holding a rally among his supporters. The New York Times’s Emily Cochrane reports that he delivered “a long, angry blast at Democrats, the news media, immigration laws and other favorite adversaries.


Other notable stories

  • In the midst of a controversy over homophobic posts on her blog, MSNBC host Joy Reid took to the air Saturday, saying, “I genuinely do not believe I wrote those hateful things….But I can definitely understand, based on things I have tweeted and have written in the past, why some people don’t believe me.” Meanwhile, The Nation’s Richard Kim has a thoughtful piece placing the offensive posts in the context of their time. “When I forced myself to review the posts, many of them were instantly recognizable to me as something a liberal blogger in those years could have written,” he writes.
  • For CJR, Stephanie Russell-Kraft reports on the ouster of the editor in chief of Religion News Service. Russell-Kraft frames the move as part of a consolidation of publisher power, in which Tom Gallagher, who took over the non-profit wire service in 2016, has clashed with editorial leaders.
  • The conservative site RedState fired several staffers last Friday, including many who have been critical of President Trump. The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray writes that the moves are the “latest evidence of a dramatic shift in right-wing outlets,” in which conservative publishers are choosing between pro-Trump and anti-Trump approaches.
  • Fox News’s John Roberts tells Business Insider that he is frustrated that the president hasn’t granted an interview to the news side of the network since taking office, but adds that what Fox’s opinion hosts do is different that his role. “We have separate lives,” Roberts says of the news/opinion divide.
  • For CJR, Andrea Gurwitt speaks with Anya Schiffrin, who edited a new collection of investigative reporting from African journalists. Schiffrin says that American journalists can learn something from their African colleagues about reporting despite significant obstacles.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.