Sunday, April 29, 2018

The White House Correspondents' Dinner is a gruesome spectacle - let's end it


The annual mixer between the White House Correspondents Association, federal officials, high-profile journalists, and other celebrities is a gruesome spectacle and it would be well to retire it.

In a recurring pattern, the dinner was held last night, a comedian delivered a hard-hitting roast-style monologue, and the morning after the media is clucking about whether said comedian went too far.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's what a roast is. A roast is a series of jokes that go a bit too far. It isn't my cup of tea, either. Reading over comedian Michelle Wolf's routine, I see some jokes about the personal appearance of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. [EDIT: Strangely, the one that's getting the most attention, about "burning facts" and using the ash as eye makeup, isn't really a joke about her appearance - it's very clearly a joke about the administration's constant lying.]

I don't think I could attend a roast, even if I wasn't the one being roasted. My anxiety on behalf of the person being targeted would be overwhelming - unless it was clear they were in on the joke, but when they are in front of people being skewered the social pressure is to "be a sport" and take the beating, making it hard to judge whether they are truly all right. Here, again, the matter of consent.

On the other hand, where can we ground a discussion of personal cruelty, when this involves an administration that got itself elected on hate speech directed at Mexicans and Muslims, and an official who has repeatedly - routinely - misled the public about the administration that has exhibited pettiness and cruelty as a matter of routine? And to whom do we speak of decency, after 65 million Americans voted for such a person?

Anyway, I will never occupy this particular room myself, partly because of my station, but I would decline even if I were invited. (And you can hold me to that - I promise this post has NOT been written by a time-traveling hacker infiltrating my Blogger account.)

As a general principle, it would be incompatible with my public function as a journalist to be so chummy with the powerful. In my own local reporting, my relationships with elected officials are cordial, but there is a line I observe.

Beside that general principle, the White House Correspondents Dinner itself is a repulsive enterprise.

The first one was a small gathering of about 50 newspaper people and some aides to President Harding. With Coolidge, Presidents began attending, and the thing grew in size and prominence. There is a morning-of brunch for writers and participants that is seen as a high-status invite. The dinner is now a televised spectacle and part of a complex and deeply corrupt relationship between some of our top news organizations and the politically powerful.

First there is a spectacle of journalists yokking it up with the powerful people they are supposed to be reporting about, in a luxurious setting. Then a comedian gets up and roasts the President, other people present, and the media generally. Then the media criticizes the comedian over jokes that made anyone - especially the press - uncomfortable. Like this, from Stephen Colbert's famous monologue in 2006:
Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.
Yet I also remember Colbert as the comedian who made a cutesy video with Henry Kissinger - instead of placing the war criminal under a citizen's arrest. Maybe that would be a lot to ask. But how about not presenting Kissinger as a welcome, avuncular figure?

Or this, from Michelle Wolf last night:
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used 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. And if you're gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn't have any.

Predictably, this morning a lot of the media outlets present at the event are debating Wolf's "tone."

She closed her routine with a reminder that the city of Flint still doesn't have potable water for its populace. For whatever that's worth. A sad, defiant parting gesture toward one of many neglected travesties - neglected by both camps represented at this glitzy event. Flint is a disaster on the scale of a hurricane, and a political scandal that should have toppled Michigan's Governor. Instead, the Mayor of that city is filing lawsuits to get the state's attention. Moreover, the issue of lead infiltration into drinking water is widespread across the United States - a matter deserving of a great deal of attention, surely at least a tenth as much attention as the national media devotes to gossiping about what the Mueller investigation might dig up (and whether we will ever see the rumored piss video). But Flint might as well be in Yemen.

Anyway, back to last night's red-carpet affair.

One defense of the WHCD boils down to American exceptionalism. Isn't it great, some say (here's an example), that in our great country, we can mock our commander-in-chief and the comedian won't get beheaded? You won't see Putin or Erdogan putting up with that. God bless America.

According to my reading of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn't make us exceptional. The right to freedom of speech and to petition our leaders (or make jokes about them) is self-evident and not uniquely "American." It is, therefore, not exceptional. It is the floor.


Polls indicate public trust in news organizations and journalists is at a dismal low. It may not help to see journalists mixing it up in luxury with the ruling elite. Add to that, the fact that these dinners often give the podium to sitting Presidents or other officials who joke about their work - which involves mass deception and policies that cause human harm. We've had jokes about fruitless searches for weapons of mass destruction. We've had jokes about people suffering and dying. We've had jokes that punch down.

Why is anybody participating in that? Let's stick a silver-plated fork in this thing.

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