FULL disclosure: I have never been to a White House Correspondents’ Dinner; I will never go to a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The American political press already has a bias toward reverence and access preservation; journalists yukking it up with powerful people whom they are supposed to cover impartially is unseemly. Partly for this reason, TheNewsEditorial has for several years not sent anyone along. Usually the dinner passes in a flurry of photos and articles about who wore what, which celebrity sat at which publication’s table and a recounting of the hokey jokes told by whichever safe comedian they wangled into hosting. But occasionally something more interesting happens.
Over the past two days Washington has worked itself into a tizzy over Michelle Wolf’s unusually scathing monologue. She mocked everyone: Donald Trump (“the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab”), Kellyanne Conway (“If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree”), Ivanka Trump (“about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons”), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“She burns facts and then uses the ashes to create a perfect smoky eye”), and the press (“[Mr Trump] helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.”).
Matt Schlapp, a conservative lobbyist and the husband of Mercedes Schlapp, a White House communications director, tweeted that he and his wife “walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us”—though precisely what definition of “elite” includes a stand-up comic but excludes high-ranking White House officials remains unclear. Several people, liberals as well as conservatives, demanded that Ms Wolf apologise for mocking Mrs Sanders’s appearance—though of course Mr Trump has made juvenile derision of people’s looks his stock-in-trade.
Margaret Talev, the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association, tut-tutted that Ms Wolf’s monologue “was not in the spirit of [our] mission,” which was “to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honouring civility [and] great reporting…not to divide people.”
Among those who failed to receive that message, apparently, was Mr Trump, who in a nifty bit of counterprogramming held a rally in Washington, Michigan during the correspondents’ dinner. He skipped the event for the second straight year. Mr Trump accused the media—whom he has previously called “the enemy of the American people”—of making up sources and hating his supporters who attended the rally. One worked-up attendee at the rally screamed at reporters, whom he called “degenerate filth”, to leave the country.
After the speech, Mr Trump’s people pressed their advantage. Mrs Schlapp told a reporter that “journalists should not be the ones to say that the president or his spokesman is lying.”
This raises an obvious question—if not journalists, then whom?—with an equally obvious answer: nobody. Mr Trump’s communication staff would prefer it if nobody pointed out when he and his media team lie.
Ms Talev invited Mrs Sanders to sit at the head table because she “thought it sent an important decision about…government and the press being able to work together.” But of course, that is precisely what should never happen, particularly with an administration as ambivalent about the First Amendment—among other norms and laws—as this one. (The Justice Department recently removed a section entitled “Need for Free Press and Public Trial” from its internal manual for federal prosecutors.)
Calls for press-corps civility are in fact calls for servility, and should be received with contempt. Some might argue that insults do not deserve the same protection as investigative journalism, but that is a distinction without a difference. Anyone who wants to outlaw or apologise for the former will end up too timid to do the latter.
In open societies, self-censorship—in the name of civility, careerism or access preservation—is a much greater threat to the media than outright repression. The only person owed an apology here is Ms Wolf, for being scolded by the very people who invited her to speak, and who purport to defend a “vigorous and free press.”