Spring is finally here. The flowers are blooming; baseball is back, and Washington is engaged in one of its favorite annual bouts of navel gazing — arguing about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
There’s always been something quite unseemly about this yearly tradition of watching adversarial-minded journalists don black tie and expensive gowns to cozy up to their sources, as if somehow the entire exercise of holding politicians accountable for the actions is a political game — and not, for many Americans, a life and death issue. But in the era of Trump, there is something particularly unpleasant and disturbing about it.
The chumminess of the correspondents’ dinner doesn’t seem so chummy any more. After all, this is a president who regularly attacks the media as fake news; insults reporters he doesn’t like by denigrating them with playground insults; and even calls the media “the enemy of the people.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump has now twice skipped the dinner (though likely less because of his hatred of the press and more because he doesn’t want to listen to people making jokes at his expense).In his place this year was his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and presidential adviser, Kellyanne Conway, who both became the butt of comedian Michelle Wolf’s jokes.
The presence of a stand-up comic at the dinner has been a perpetual source of controversy, because every year there are a few boundary-pushing jokes that cause a brief hiccup of outrage among D.C. reporters who have an outsized affection for Beltway comity. Somehow, there’s always fresh surprise that a comedian telling jokes — generally at the expense of the politicians assembled — would ruffle some feathers. But the real outrage — as was the case in 2006 when Stephen Colbert famously lambasted president George W. Bush — is that entertainment usually hits bit too close to home with their act, and the journalists find themselves defending the politicians they are supposed to be covering. But, in reality, the true outrage was the comedians exposing the hypocrisy of journalists trying to play nice with the political class.
This year has been no different. Social media has been set abuzz by Wolf comparing Sanders to Aunt Lydia in the dystopian TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale” and joking that Sanders “burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”
Many saw this latter joke as an attack on Sanders’ appearance. It’s not. Rather, it’s a comedian pointing out something that all of who cover this White House knows to be true — that Sanders lies all the time.
Yet, for many reporters, attacking Huckabee (“a wife and mother,” said Mika Brzezinski, who also called Wolf’s act “deplorable’’) to her face was a bridge too far. It was, wrote White House Correspondents Association president Margaret Talev in a letter to members, not in the spirit of the evening’s mission to offer a “unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.”
The problem, of course, is that this is not a message that unifies the national press corps and the Trump White House. Presidential administrations and the journalists who cover them always act at cross-purposes. This White House has practically declared war on the national media.
All this gets to the heart of the problem with the correspondents’ dinner and why it urgently needs to end. It’s bad enough for journalists and politicians to be buddying up at a black tie dinner. It’s about one thousand times worse when it’s being done with an administration that neither respects nor supports the free press in this country.
Indeed, the most offensive thing that happened Saturday night in Washington was hard-working journalists, committed to a free press and holding the nation’s leaders accountable for their actions, being forced to share a dais with a woman (Sanders) who belittles and disrespects the media — and also works for Donald Trump.
Journalism in this country is under assault. We have a president who regularly uses reporters as punching bags and denigrates any story he doesn’t like as “fake news.” A majority of Republicans now believe the media are “the enemy of the people.” Across the country, journalists are being laid off, local newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, and Americans are not being kept fully informed about what’s happening in their communities. These developments represent not just an existential crisis for journalism, but a true threat to representative democracy. Journalistic organizations like the White House Correspondents Association should be honoring the work we do and highlighting the critical importance of an adversarial press. What we shouldn’t be doing is pretending that an administration that believes not one iota in the work we do is committed to the same goals.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.