The White House Correspondents’ Dinner Debacle Proves That We — & The Media —Haven’t Learned Anything

Photo: REX/Shutterstock.
On Saturday, the very unnecessary White House Correspondents’ Dinner started off without a hitch. But by the end of comedian Michelle Wolf’s set, there were no fewer than five trending topics on Twitter about the dinner, almost entirely relating to one specific joke Wolf made about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Wolf’s comment about Sanders went as such: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” Pretty in line with a typical White House Correspondents’ Dinner roast, right?
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According to many folks in the mainstream media, wrong.
If you were to look at the Twitter accounts of folks like Maggie Haberman or Mika Brzezinski or Andrea Mitchell without context, you would’ve thought Wolf punched a baby, instead of doing her job speaking truth about a grown woman affiliated with the upper echelons of the vile Trump administration. To make matters worse, the White House Correspondents’ Association issued a ludicrous statement about how the event was supposed to have a “unifying message” and be about “honouring civility,” and they unsurprisingly threw Michelle Wolf under the bus.
I don’t even know where to begin with how embarrassing this is, especially combined with the larger issues involving the press we’ve seen in the past week, including journalists’ arguing about fact-checking following a kerfuffle between Chelsea Clinton and Amy Chozick, author of the book Chasing Hillary, and the scrutiny Joy Reid faced regarding her apology over past anti-LGBTQ posts on her blog, which she claims were created by third-party hackers. As far as the last few days are concerned, journalists do not expect each other to tell the truth, and we seem okay with punishing comedians for it, too.
With this latest White House Correspondents’ Dinner incident, I can only say thank God that I’m not part of the gaggle of Washington D.C. reporters who seem more concerned with access to this administration than the people who are being attacked by Trump and his cronies.
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First and foremost, let’s talk about the utter irony of an event that’s supposed to celebrate the freedom of the press — and by extension, freedom of speech and expression — having a bunch of supposedly “unbiased” people come to the defence of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a woman who calls them liars on a regular basis while trying to fill their pages with harmful untruths about millions of Americans every day. Since when is journalism’s job in a country with an allegedly free press to “unify” with a government it’s supposed to report on?
Second, let me set the record straight: Michelle Wolf’s joke wasn't about eyeshadow. Perhaps we’re finally starting to realise we shouldn’t make fun of a woman’s appearance or mock her appearance in place of legitimate criticism. But guess what? Michelle Wolf did neither. She was critiquing Sanders’ role as a complicit woman in this administration. The lack of critical thinking from journalists — as in, the same people who are supposedly exploring our country with a critical lens — to decipher between an actually sexist joke from one that mentions makeup products is mind-boggling.
But it’s not just the media that has to slow its roll in 2018 and do some serious soul-searching. We as the public need to have a referendum on what we expect from our media—and the answer can’t be that the mainstream media are all honorary members of the Resistance.
Part of what’s gotten us to this point is that we’ve begun to confuse excellent reporting that happens to turn the tides the way we want — like David Fahrenthold’s release of the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape or Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein — with activism. Reporters have also printed stories that don’t help the Left’s cause. But that’s the point of journalism, at the end of the day: To expose the truth, regardless of what that is.
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This past January during the heat of filmmaking awards season, Amanda Hess posed an excellent question in an article about Time’s Up and sexual misconduct allegations in the film industry: “Is it possible for Hollywood to truly reckon with its issues while it’s so busy celebrating itself?” We have a similar problem with media: Between the Pulitzers, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and a smattering of upcoming books and films about good ol’ reporters who break important news, it seems like the media — and the public as a whole — should spend as much energy looking at itself with a critical view as it does a complimentary one.
For our part, we can stop mythologising journalists and trying to ingratiate mainstream reporters into the Left’s ranks. That includes not giving more weight to journalism’s numerous self-congratulations throughout the year and instead holding the industry’s feet to the fire. After all, where do we even start in talking about media’s rampant problems? Newsrooms are overwhelmingly white and male, which in turn affects coverage as well as whose stories get told and how those stories get told. There are additional issues with the pipeline and which beats people are assigned to based on their identities. And then there are the issues of access journalism and the cozy relationships the media has with sources in order to maintain entry to some of these worlds. We need to talk about that fine line.
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So, what needs to happen? Well, for one thing, reporters need to put the brakes on the self-righteous moralising. Or, if you don’t want to put the brakes on them, don’t get all pissy on Twitter when people point out that being a journalist doesn’t give you some sort of higher power to pontificate on all things ethics. Being a journalist also doesn’t suddenly make you immune to personal biases, which for some folks apparently seem to include a proclivity for white feminism, white fragility, and white supremacy. If those biases make the public conclude that your search for the truth — regardless of what that truth is — as a journalist is tainted, so be it.
It’d also be great if we could end self-aggrandising events like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There are plenty of other ways to accomplish the dinner’s supposed objectives, like raising scholarship money, without all of this crap.
And for all of us, let’s make a pledge to stop celebrating mainstream journalists as our own personal resistance. Let’s stop reading profiles that try to connect members of this supposedly unbiased press corps to activism when they’re just telling stories. Let’s stop viewing films like Spotlight and The Post and the upcoming film Run This Town and the unnamed project on the New York Times’ breaking of the Harvey Weinstein allegations until the press can get a handle on itself. Let’s instead focus on fixing the issues within media and calling out injustice when we see it.
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At this point, our mainstream media shouldn’t automatically get to play protagonist in our storylines without proof that it’s changed for the better. To mistake it as such without making it check itself first is to repeat the wrongs of the past few years all over again.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.
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