It’s quite difficult to write about the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when you think the worst kind of journalism is about journalists’ reaction to a party thrown for journalists to honor journalists (and raise money). Let’s get a few things out of the way:
I’ve never liked these soirees, which convey a false and inappropriate chumminess between reporters and the people they cover. I was in favor of dumping the thing years ago; I’m delighted if others now agree.
In an era when the media has been labeled the enemy of the people - and Republican officeholders agree - there certainly is no need to yuk it up with those contemptuous of the First Amendment. Doing so conveys that their crusade against the media is not a serious matter.
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Sarah Huckabee Sanders was insulted for lying, not for her looks. The point of the jokes in question was her disdain for the truth, not her eye makeup. (”She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”)
President Donald Trump is certainly meaner, more vulgar and more inappropriate than Michelle Wolf. And let’s not forget that Wolf is a comedian, not a reporter, and has no obligation to uphold any social or professional standards that would apply to the media. (By definition, comedians flout standards of social and professional restraint.) Still, the media should have more dignity than the president (a low bar) and is going to be held responsible for the words of its featured guest.
The White House Correspondents’ Association leadership is sadly misguided if it thinks the purpose of the evening is to “offer a unifying message about our shared commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility.” The media may uphold those values, but the administration so obviously does not, so this statement suggests either a stunning degree of obliviousness or a propensity to adhere to phony “balance.” (Trump says the sky is pink with purple spots; others think it is blue.)
You don’t need a self-indulgent, extravagant party to raise money for journalism scholarships. A credit card or checkbook is sufficient.
Now that we have this out of the way, we have a few ideas about what can be done going forward.
First, cut out the on-camera White House news conferences. To be clear, Sanders repeatedly misleads or innocently offers misleading information (on every upcoming firing/resignation, for one thing, and even on what the president did and did not say). Putting her on live TV to tell falsehoods is not news. It is enabling the destruction of objective truth. The media surely should get the White House position or response on matters on which it reports. (”The White House denied that H.R. McMaster would be leaving, but it has made similar statements regarding other officials who were then promptly fired.”) However, this does not require a televised event in which the press secretary shows sullen contempt for the media as an institution and evidences no shame in dissembling.
Second, because of the propensity of this administration to lie about easily ascertained facts and events in the works, virtually every utterance from an administration figure should be couched as “the White House claimed” or “the White House argued.” Virtually nothing can or should be taken at face value. When the White House repeats a falsehood after being shown incontrovertible evidence that it is a falsehood, the honest term is “lying.”
Third, instead of a glitzy affair, the media and the country would benefit from an annual lunch to highlight the latest Freedom House report on press freedom. In addition to foreign abuses, the media, regardless of who is in power, should review the current administration’s attacks on the free press and efforts to limit access. Rather than a third-rate comedian, the host might be The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was held captive in Iran from July 2014 to January 2016; the parents of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by Islamist terrorists; or members of the punk-feminist band Pussy Riot, who were imprisoned by Russia. Media freedom isn’t a joke these days, and if the media does not take it seriously, who will?