It’s long past time for the all-too-cozy event to end.
Politicians, journalists, and guests at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.
Each spring, journalists, politicians, and celebrities make their way to the Washington Hilton for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. The fundraiser for the White House Correspondents’ Association is a time-honored tradition that dates back almost a century.
But it needs to end.
The headline-grabbing performance by comedian Michelle Wolf, the backlash to her critique of Trump, and the WHCA’s subsequent apology revealed some problematic truths about political journalists and the powerful people they cover. It has become clear that the Correspondents’ dinner has become an unhealthy tradition that detracts from the WHCA’s constitutionally protected purpose.
The WHCA was founded in 1914 amid journalists’ concerns that President Woodrow Wilson was about to restrict access to his administration’s press briefings. A group of news organizations banded together and fought back, forming the collective that lives on today. Its founding was built on the idea that journalists have a responsibility to hold the politically powerful accountable for their words and actions. According to the WHCA website, the group’s goal is to “ensure that the men and women who cover the White House have the ability to seek answers from powerful officials, up to and including the President.”
Their mission is a noble pursuit, but it also makes their recent Correspondents’ dinner appear antithetical to the spirit of the organization.
The dinner, which dates back to 1921, has been the setting of an uncomfortable standoff between journalists and the people they cover. President Calvin Coolidge first attended the gathering in 1924, as have 14 other presidents since. In the 1980s, the WHCA began hiring comedians to “roast” the people and organizations in attendance, a tradition that continues today. In 1993, C-SPAN began airing the event live, putting the awkward hobnobbing on display for the whole world to see.
Since then, critics have argued that the event has become a bloated spectacle that gives Americans an unflattering look at how Washington journalism’s proverbial sausage is made. In 1972, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson even warned of the coziness between journos and politicos at events like the Correspondents’ dinner: “The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists — in Washington or anywhere else that they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the daily press briefing in August 2017. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
For years, the WHCA and others in media have been able to justify the dinner’s existence by pointing to the large sums of money it brings in to fund scholarships for young journalists.
But recently the media landscape and American politics have changed.
For the second year in a row, Trump decided not to attend the dinner, instead choosing to hold a campaign rally in Michigan. (One video from the rally that received a lot of attention was of an outraged Trump supporter screaming at members of the press, calling them “degenerate filth,” a relatively common theme from the 2016 campaign.)
Meanwhile, in Washington, the dinner went on as planned with everyone acting like nothing was wrong.
Michelle Wolf, the comedian hired as the evening’s entertainment, did what she was brought there to do: She poked fun at the powerful. The jokes were biting, but they weren’t in any way out of the ordinary for the event. Her observations included the fact that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies a lot (this is objectively true), that Trump might not be as rich as he claims he is (there’s a lot of evidence to suggest this is the case), and highlighted the hypocrisy of self-professed “pro-life” members of Congress who pay for their wives and mistresses’ abortions in secret (just last year a Republican member of the House retired for this very reason).
Wolf used her comedy to highlight uncomfortable truths.
Then came the backlash.
Prominent conservative Matt Schlapp tweeted from the event, “My wife [Mercedes Schlapp] and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us,” adding, “I love irreverent humor. Abortion is not funny it's a human tragedy. Wh correspondents Assoc owes America an apology.”
The outrage came off as mostly manufactured, with a number of outlets reporting that Schlapp only left a few minutes early and still went to an afterparty. Still, a familiar narrative was born: Conservatives had once again been made the victims of the mean liberal “elites.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]With their inability to recognize their error, the WHCA illustrates exactly why its sycophantic relationship with politicians is unhealthy for the industry and for democracy as a whole.[/quote]
Conservatives also argued that one of Wolf’s jokes about Sanders’ penchant for lying was actually about Sanders’ appearance; it wasn’t. The joke: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s really resourceful. Like she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Maybe she's born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” Responding to criticism, Wolf tweeted, “Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks? I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials.” Still, the narrative was repeated ad nauseum, and — as is so often the case in the Trump administration’s well-oiled public relations machine — that persistence paid off as some people became convinced that “smokey eye” was an insult.
The outrage machine was in full effect, and there’s little that could stop it.
Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.
These are not normal times for journalists, and the WHCA does itself no favors by pretending that nothing is wrong.
In his run for president, and ever since, Donald Trump has been relentless in his efforts to delegitimize the press, calling stories he doesn’t like “fake news” and even going so far as to call outlets like The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN the “enemy of the American people” less than a month after taking office.
He’s been pretty successful too.
An October 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 80% of Trump voters believe that the major news outlets in the U.S. fabricate stories about the president. In fired FBI director James Comey’s infamous memos of his conversations with the president, he alleges that Trump once floated the idea of jailing journalists “to find out what they know” in order to stop internal leaks. Just last week, BuzzFeed reported that Trump’s Justice Department had quietly removed language related to press freedom from its U.S. Attorneys manual.
Team Trump has also been on a mission to protect his feelings at all costs.
The morning after the dinner, WHCA president Margaret Talev condemned Wolf’s routine, first in taking a bit of a conciliatory tone in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, and later in a written statement. “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,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Frankly, the statement was absurd and cowardly.
Unity is ideal and civility can be admirable, but the WHCA needs to be realistic about today’s media climate. News outlets keep taking steps to try to win over its detractors, taking every outrage at face value when the fact is that these arguments are clearly being made in bad faith. There’s no comedy bit tame enough, no number of partisan commentators and columnists that will appease the critics.
With their inability to recognize their error, the WHCA illustrates exactly why its sycophantic relationship with politicians is unhealthy for the industry and for democracy as a whole. Like Thompson says: If you’re afraid of upsetting the powerful and losing access, if you’re afraid of making them dislike you, how are you supposed to hold their feet to the fire?
Washington journalists, and the WHCA specifically, need to recognize the crucial role they play in our country. Journalism is one of the only professions given an explicit shoutout in the Constitution, and for good reason: Journalists need to serve as a check on our government’s worst impulses.
So please, for the sake of our democracy, let’s end this dated ritual, put away the tuxedos, and get back to the mission of ensuring that “the men and women who cover the White House have the ability to seek answers from powerful officials, up to and including the President.”