The White House Correspondents’ Association Doesn’t Stand for a Free Press

President Trump poses in the Oval Office with New York Times White House Correspondent Maggie Haberman

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed (couldn’t deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!

This tweet was sent out by President Donald Trump at 10:38, the evening after the Correspondents’ Dinner, in which the tone of a joke by the invited comedian Michelle Wolf was made to be the dominant news story of the following day. This was the same day the Justice Department quietly deleted language about press freedom from its internal manual, Central American Refugees arrived at the Southern border to request asylum, Sprint and T-Mobile announced plans to merge, and it was announced that former White House Physician and nominee for Veterans Affairs Ronny Jackson would not return to his old position as White House Physician after being embroiled in scandal which surfaced his cabinet position nomination. Her joke was really just that offensive.

In the joke, Wolf calls Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “resourceful” because she “burns facts to create the perfect smoky eye.” As the camera centers on Sanders, Wolf delivers the punchline, “maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies,” and the reaction of Sanders, a look of shameless self-admittance of her devilish deal to advance herself is worth watching the 20-minute monologue for the schadenfreude of this image alone.

In response to Wolf’s brazen callout of Sanders’ flagrant falsehoods in the White House Press Briefing Room, political and media elites of many stripes responded in tweets, likely as they attended after-parties to the affair. They expressed indignation and woe at Wolf’s breach in the unspoken and unenforced code of civility, which though unspoken, unenforced, somehow guides all of our brave media institutions like a rudderless ship.

Now, conservative meltdown in response to Wolf is to be expected, the right has always played the charade of scoffing at PC culture and safe-spaces, while also retreating to their own echo chambers and expressing shock to opinions they do not support. The outrage on the right is predictable both in its occasion and lines of attack, it was the caving of journalists that was surprising and disheartening. In hindsight I should not have been surprised.

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has always been a troubling reminder of the unhealthy shoulder rubbing between the most powerful people in our country, and the journalists who we depend upon to expose their malfeasance. One large room shared by the elites of our media, politicians, and the various celebrities, plutocrats, and socialites who also receive invitations, as they all yuck it up together over fine food and beverage is admittedly not a good look. In the past, the president would also deliver a roast following the invited comedian, and the press could laugh as, for example, former President George W. Bush searches on stage for WMDs, (a very funny joke about the administration lying to the press to manufacture justification for the Iraq War), which would have the effect of clearing the air with softer criticisms if the comedian made too many of the powerful attendees uncomfortable. Since Trump is too thin-skinned to volunteer to be mocked and too humorless to return the favor, he has skipped the last two dinners and no longer are the press and president laughing together. As Wolf performed it was obvious the veneer has started to crack, as the attendees shifted around uncomfortably, with no hope that the president’s softer edge would be able to dull the sting of the outsider they invited to satirize their symbiotic schmooze-fest. So, long into the following day, many in the elite media continued to defend Sanders, a sycophancy seemingly to serve civility, as our most powerful leaders should only take so much criticism.

At 10:03 PM (35 minutes before the earlier mentioned Trump tweet for those interested in the timeline) White House Correspondents’ Association Chairwoman Margaret Talev released a statement about the recent controversy, stating that, “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message,” and that “the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

There are a whole host of rationale’s one can form as to why the WHCA decided to trade truth-telling for obeisance, and they are likely all partially to blame, though the most logical one rests on the incentive structure between the press and the presidency. The media desires access to important administration figures, and dependable sources to leak information for the media to report. The issue rests in the fact that these sources are often high-level staffers of the administration, with their own agendas, and an incentive to make themselves look better and to disseminate administration talking points. The compromise between the two to each achieve their separate and adversarial goals provides journalists the access they need to report their stories, and administration leakers a platform more trustworthy than themselves to shape their image and forward their agenda.

This is not true of all journalism, or even of most, but what is true is that the establishment at the top of our institutions, is intertwined in ways that are dangerous to our politics. Wealthy tycoons finance the campaigns of our political leaders, and the upper echelon of our media is entranced with the powerful. Never has this been more obvious than in the monologue’s aftermath and the righteous indignation which followed, as journalists clutched their pearls because the comedian they invited called out the Press Secretary for lying to the faces of these same journalists.

It is shameful that an organization that states to “work to ensure a strong free press and robust coverage of the presidency” cannot allow an open mention of a blunt truth because it offends the powers that be. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner cannot continue in its current form, if what is spoken there is only allowed to go so far. Either comedian’s should be allowed full latitude to express painful truths of our politics in their roast, or the White House Correspondents’ Association does not stand for a free press, but is beholden to the administration it covers. If truth can’t be uttered in a room full of journalists, then it’s time we end the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, full-stop. If it’s not about truth, it’s simply an elitist hobnob, and the commingling of press and politicians, who should by their nature of be adversarial, undermines the work these journalists do.

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