Dinner in Praise of Press? Not Really

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  MAY 3, 2018

Her monologue was repugnant, full of vitriol and vulgarity, a slew of lewd terms most of the audience would never repeat in front of their parents or children.

Yet Comedian Michelle Wolf got some laughs anyway. She was performing at the fundraising dinner for the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) last week.

Something she said, however, got no laughs, only deafening silence. In the avalanche of coverage following the event, there was scarce mention of her closing words, except in Politico and by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, who honed his craft at the Minneapolis Tribune. Wolf talked about what Blake called the media’s “codependent relationship” with President Trump.

Her words:

“You guys (the press) are obsessed with Trump. Did you use to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you.

“He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric. But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

There was silence because the joke was on them, the audience of journalists and their benefactors, a few B list Hollywood celebrities and government officials.

Her scolding of the fourth estate was a little dose of its own popular cliché, ‘truth to power.’

The First Truth

The first truth is that the press did contribute, maybe mightily, to Donald Trump’s victory at the polls (he boasts of billions in free publicity).

Trump has since become a media moneymaker. He makes more money for them than he does for himself (we can only guess because Trump refuses to disclose his income or separate himself from it). News executives have been pretty open about it (discussed by Tim Carney in the Washington Examiner). “…and bring it on Donald Trump. Keep going,” Les Moonves, CEO of CBS said in 2016. Moonves, according to the Hollywood reporter, “called the campaign for president a ‘circus’ full of ‘bomb throwing’ and he hopes it continues.” Even the President of the WHCA, Bloomberg writer Margaret Talev acknowledged it in her introductory remarks: “It’s (the dinner) not about protecting our profession as a business; as a matter of fact our businesses have done pretty well over the last couple of years…”

The whole infotainment industry–from late night comedy hosts, to news executives, to pundits and reporters–have a strong vested financial interest in Trump. The critical question that always follows is when does the money influence decisions and judgment? The media contend often that it makes a huge difference to politicians and business executives. Are professionals in the media so different? Much coverage suggests not.

The Second Truth

The second truth is that the majority, and maybe the vast majority of working journalists in what is known as the mainstream media, vote Democratic and/or are liberal or lean liberal. There is legitimate cause, given the tone, temperament, and slant of Trump coverage, to suggest that much coverage is biased and agenda-driven. Did not members of the media pledge after his election never to “normalize” the Trump presidency?

Reassurances by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan that the media “aren’t out to get him (Trump) but merely to cover him,” and Post Editor Martin Baron that “we are not at war (with Trump) we are at work,” are not very reassuring and insult our intelligence, even those of us who have little to insult.

These truths are what venerable journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein define as the “best obtainable truth” at the time. There are a good many elements of journalistic behavior and practice that demand serious thought, independent public scrutiny, and especially media introspection. They include the abuse of anonymous sourcing; the business, political, and financial conflicts of interests; the gross exaggeration and sensationalism of information to attract eyeballs for ratings, readers, listeners, and viewers; questionable news judgments; bias and inaccuracies; the convergence of opinion and reporting; the increase in agenda-driven journalism; and the myriad problems inherent in Internet information.

They all deserve reflection and probably reform, especially in the current political climate when stakes are so high and the number one personality defining much of our politics and governance is an erratic, loose cannon who does not distinguish truth from fiction.

The news media have lost faith with the American people. Some in the media think that’s the public’s fault, not theirs. “So be it,” says Post Editor Baron. They are wrong. When the media, like the government, violates its compact with the people it serves, then the people suffer and so does our system of politics and governance of which the press is an essential and maybe irreplaceable component.

It is a shame and an inherent flaw in the system that the media are not subject to the kind of penetrating oversight and critical judgment to which they subject politicians and others in society. The media are their own critic and therefore their own worst enemy. They still haven’t figured out how to cover the Trump phenomenon, but he has long since figured out how to push their buttons and does with impunity.

The 2018 Correspondence Dinner has reminded us for for a number of years now that this week-long spectacle of elitist parties, self-adulation, red carpets, and paparazzi, should be terminated. The media should step away from the mirror, mothball the tuxedos, and devote their resources to making their profession more professional and worthy of public trust.

They could start by reassessing how a foul-mouthed, vulgar unfunny comedian was paid $10,000 to make the White House press corps look petulant and ridiculous.

The dinner, by the way, did not celebrate the First Amendment, as advertised. It celebrated journalism’s biggest egos, an avoidance of the truth of who they’ve become and those who suck up to them at $1,000 a plate. The dinner does raise scholarship money for budding students of journalism, but this year only $134,000 (according to the WHCA website), out of what could conceivably have been a haul well in excess of a $1 million that night assuming most of the guests paid or were paid for (like Trump, the WHCA does not reveal its revenues).

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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