The White House Correspondents Dinner has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since Stephen Colbert mocked the Bush Administration back in 2006. Back then, the press debated about whether he was too mean to the sitting President while forgetting that the purpose of comedy from Aristophanes onward has been to expose hypocrisy, trivialize the exalted, and hold people in power accountable.
Much has been written this weekend about this years’ comedian, Michelle Wolf, and her decision to target White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Journalists like The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman took Wolf to task for criticizing Sanders’ appearance, even though, more than 24 hours after sending that tweet, Haberman still could not point out specifically where Wolf did so. The truth is, Wolf did not criticize the Press Secretary for her looks, she made a joke about her “burn[ning] facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” The joke is about eyeshadow, folks. But the reaction of Haberman and others, including Andrea Mitchell and Mika Brzezinski, would lead you to think the White House Correspondents Association had hired Daniel Tosh to perform his brand of “you so ugly” frat boy humor.
In response to these critics, the White House Correspondents Association releasing the following statement on Twitter yesterday distancing themselves from Wolf:
— WHCA (@whca) April 30, 2018
While it’s easy to assume this is all because of the Sanders joke, it’s really not the only motivating factor for this statement. Wolf hit the press where they live when, at the end of her nearly-twenty-minute set, she raked them over the coals for the way they have covered President Trump:
“You guys are obsessed w/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. And if you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.”
This is the heart of Wolf’s routine, and although the press hasn’t said so explicitly, it’s why I believe they’ve been so scared. Over the past year, while some journalists have resisted Trump and reported his misdeeds accurately and honestly, others have used their White House access to softball for him and refused to respond when called out on it. This was on display yesterday when Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani took Haberman to task for her critique of Wolf:
Please quote the exact line that intensely criticized her appearance. You’re a journalist. You should be doing this already. https://t.co/B9aT7moy2C
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) April 29, 2018
Have a good one as well. Truly. You have an essential job. We all need you to do it well.
And, also, it’s become extremely obvious that SHS is one of your sources. I’d do a better job of trying to hide that fact in the future. https://t.co/EEuxbeGseg
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) April 29, 2018
Haberman has built her reputation on access to Trump’s White House, and to her credit, she has broken some significant stories about them. But while access journalism is important, it’s also dangerous. If you play your hand close to their chest to protect it, that’s fine; but if it becomes the defining characteristic of your journalism, then the rush to preserve it at all costs clouds your judgment. Nanjiani was right to call out Sanders as the source of her articles, and he wasn’t the only one, either, proving that Haberman must be a lousy poker player.
What’s more, when the press pushes back against critiques like Wolf’s, it does a disservice to itself. In a time where we need the free press more than ever, the Trump Administration has been determined to shut it out, whether it’s by throttling net neutrality so as to harm smaller websites like this one, or the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to “monitor” certain journalists. “You helped create this monster,” Wolf told the room, reminding them of CBS president Les Moonves’s infamous statement that Trump “may not be good for America, but [is] damn good for CBS.”
The press is trapped in an abusive relationship with the President – no matter how much they loathe him, they are unable to quit him. They, and the White House Correspondents’ Association, do so at their own peril. At the same time they released their statement condemning Wolf, the Department of Justice removed the right to a free press from its internal guidelines for prosecutors. As of 11 AM Eastern Standard Time, Maggie Haberman has still not tweeted about it. Perhaps it might be well for her to step off of Trump for a moment and say something concerning this – because when journalists don’t report on threats to their jobs, who will?