Michelle Wolf Isn’t the Problem. The Dinner’s the Problem
Michelle Wolf’s bad jokes, they were bad. But she’s not the problem. The whole freaking dinner’s the problem. Which, actually, Wolf herself kind of suggested.
Why? Because that gathering of the great and good reveals the nice cozy palsy “we just like to tease” scratch-each-other’s back friendship between people who should not be friends. The country does not need White House reporters who pal around with the White House. Exactly the opposite.
From the Right
We can argue this from right or left. I’ll start with the right. In 2014, six years into the Obama reign, a National Review writer called the dinner an “abomination.” Peter Kirsanow laughed at the Republicans for going. “Republicans never seem to get that all of the jokes at the affair are on them,” he wrote.
They look like high-school nerds, so happily amazed to have been invited to the cool kids’ house party that they’re oblivious to the fact that the sole purpose for the invitation is so the cool kids can make fun of them and later dunk their heads in the john.
The press basically worked for the Democrats, he thought. So “why enable the enablers? Why validate their evident bias and corruption?” Look at what the press had done:
The press corps has done the White House’s heavy lifting on burying not just Benghazi, but the IRS scandal, the serial catastrophes of Obamacare, and the various calamities masquerading as a foreign policy — doing little more than acting as brick masons for the Most Transparent Administration in History’s ubiquitous stone walls.
This wasn’t just a problem for Republicans. It’s a problem for American democracy. Kirsanow explained: “To help celebrate the unseemly relationship between the White House and the media … helps erode any remaining confidence people have in the integrity of our political institutions.”
Another NR writer called the dinner “a sort of icon of well-intentioned false bonhomie.” Dan McLaughlin noted that “True believers and populists hated the way it made light of substance and played into the idea that everybody in DC thinks the whole thing is a game.” The dinner widened “the gulf between the DC ‘cool kids’ and the rest of the country.”
And From the Left
Some people on the left think the same way. Rolling Stone biggie Matt Taibbi noted how much of the press itself disowned the talk. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell complained that “the spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn.” He responded:
Like your reporting, you mean? The White House Correspondents’ dinner has always been a bad aristocratic joke, the punch line obvious to everyone but the participants. ‘Make a joke — but not a real one’ has been its unofficial motto since forever.
Taibbi liked Wolf’s performance, because she made people mad. The press’s negative reaction revealed what the dinner’s really about. “It’s designed to be a chummy mutual admiration society.” Why? “A significant portion of the national press corps genuinely gets off on the experience of being close to power. They love going to fancy restaurants and being whispered to by a Senatorial aide or, better yet, an actual Senator.”
Others on the left made the same point. Even the neo-liberal bible The Economist agreed. The magazine doesn’t send anyone. “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.”
America Needs an Adversarial Press
The right thinks the problem is that the liberal press hates conservatism. The left thinks the problem is that the establishment press supports the establishment. The first is true, but the second’s more important.
We need an adversarial press. Whichever party has the presidency, the nation needs reporters who ask themselves, “What are they up to?” Guys who take nothing on trust and keep digging for the real story. Guys who assume the press secretary’s spinning when she says, “The president likes kittens and ice cream.” Hard-nosed, hard-bitten, hard-writing reporters out of the old movies, who assume that a politician is guilty until proven innocent, and really, not even then.
In other words, guys the White House won’t like. Won’t like, whether it’s Republican or Democrat.
Whatever our politics, we need reporters to dig for the truth, to push their way in behind the curtains, to find all the naked emperors. We don’t know what’s really going on there in D.C. A lot of people spend a lot of money to make sure we don’t. Remember Bill Cosby before anyone knew what he really is. You can’t swing a cat in D.C. without hitting someone like him and three people who want to make sure you never find out.
Right or left, we all need reporters to be equal-opportunity skeptics. Of course we don’t trust the other side. But we really can’t trust our own. As Lord Acton so famously said, as I explained here, “Power tends to corrupt.” Our own people get sucked into the thing, whether you’re a conservative who calls it “the swamp” or a leftist who calls it “the power elite.”
The WHCD celebrates the, let me call them “the swamp elite.” They’re saying to the rest of us: “We’re really friends, because we’re the insiders. We run the country our way, for our own purposes. We may fight in public, but only to settle who’s the top insider. Some of us may really hate each other, but that’s the way it is in any family. The important thing is we’re family. And you’re not.”
Down with the dinner. And down with what it symbolizes.