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Michelle Wolf Aside, It's Time For The White House Correspondents' Dinner To End

Michelle Wolf, pictured at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Global News/YouTube)
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Michelle Wolf, pictured at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Global News/YouTube)

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Nothing says “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” — the governing edict for any journalist — more than sitting down for a multi-course dinner with the most comfortable class of people this side of the Hamptons.

I’m referencing, of course, that annual black-tie lovefest, the White House Correspondents’ dinner. It’s the place where members of the media who cover the goings-on in our nation’s capital put down their cameras and notebooks, shift their critical thinking skills into neutral, then proceed to guffaw and break bread with those they report on.

The annual dinner, which dates to 1921 and was a “men’s only” event until 1962, was held Saturday night in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton.

This year’s event caused an uproar, primarily due to the burn-down-the-mission monologue of comedienne Michelle Wolf.

Naturally, opinions on her performance are divided along party lines. Democrats thought she rocked the house, with her excoriating of President Trump and some of his staffers with unmerciful one-liners.

Republicans, meanwhile, have gone all snowflake, complaining that Wolf was too mean (forgetting perhaps Trump’s own penchant for even-nastier put-downs).

I thought she was great and did exactly what she’d been hired to do. I mean, you hire a wolf, don’t expect her to turn into a lamb behind the podium.

The real problem with the dinner goes way behind a few harsh jokes and profanities. Billed as a celebration of the First Amendment, the event actually represents so much of what’s wrong with today’s media. So much of it can be labelled as style over substance. Meanwhile, its race to the bottom in an attempt to capture ratings, readers or clicks is downright unseemly, giving us non-news, which is almost as bad as fake news.

... the event actually represents so much of what’s wrong with today’s media.

The correspondents’ dinner also feeds into the public perception that the media is comprised of biased, self-promoters who couldn’t be trusted with a Little League score never mind the stories that shape our nation and the world.

A 2017 poll by Reuters indicated that the mainstream media, here and abroad, is, to put it politely, looked upon with great scepticism. Which is why it’s so easy for President Trump to bash reporters like a cheap piñata. Maybe he’s got a point. After all, how can we trust Reporter X to deliver an objective report on the actions of Politician Y, if she spent part of Saturday night asking him to pass the salad dressing?

Even when I was a cub reporter I knew better. When the chair of the selectman in the town I was covering invited me to his annual Fourth of July cookout, I said no. Not because I’m allergic to barbecue sauce, but because I knew even then that there was a line. No fear, no favor, no gifts, no dinners, no nonsense. It meant I wasn’t everyone’s favorite person around town, but my hope is they knew that I couldn’t be swayed.

One person smart enough not to attend Saturday’s dinner was the president himself. No, the president was in Michigan speaking to a crowd of red-hatted supporters on his never-ending ego campaign. Yet he would have had no problem catching the big event: C-Span, CNN and MSNBC carried it live. There were also hours-long pre-shows and a red-carpet, panels of experts offering analysis, and wrap-up discussions to dissect all that had gone on. Pre-show interview subjects included the lawyer of a certain adult film actress, anchors and analysts and, of course, those many politicians who never met a live microphone they didn’t like.

So much fun.

These are troubled times. If you are a liberal, you’re worried about the president’s authoritarian streak, inept cabinet appointees, lack of fundamental knowledge about the country’s institutions and history, an EPA head who is intent on wiping out the E in his agency’s name, and yes, porn stars, payoffs and sleazy lawyers. And all this is from just the past month.

But, as members of the press these days like to say about particular stories, the optics are terrible.

If you’re a Trump supporter, you’re worried about his future in office, his ability to keep the stock market humming, and his promises to scale back immigration and regulation.

Both sides should be worried about Russian interference in our democracy, healthcare costs, a stalemated Congress, race relations, the rocketing deficit, and a nuclear threat that may or may not have eased in recent days.

The media is supposed to be independent, the watchdogs of our democracy. Sure, they should be allowed to take a break and have some fun, and the White House Correspondents’ Association, I should mention, does raise money through the dinner and provides scholarships for young people. But, as members of the press these days like to say about particular stories, the optics are terrible.

Perhaps putting Saturday night’s gaiety in an even harsher light is the fact that mere hours after the final goblets were downed and the red carpet rolled up, several journalists were targeted and killed by a bomber in Kabul.

There’s some great journalism being done today, shining a light on stories of great importance, and even matters of life and death. I’d prefer a media that celebrates the First Amendment and honors its duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable by continuing that good work, and not yucking it up with those they’ve dedicated their careers to keeping in check. For if the media's job is to speak truth to power, they should follow Michelle Wolf's example and take no prisoners.

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John J. Winters Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters teaches at universities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life."

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