Weather-wise, April did its thing: It came in like a lion and went out like a lamb. Better off than America’s ailing press freedom, which came into April like a wounded duck, struggling for altitude amid all the stray potshots, and ended the month flat on its back, bill-deep in Washington swampwater and desperately gasping for air. The real tragedy is that the deepest wounds didn’t come from the barrel bombs of truth that comedian Michelle Wolf dropped Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD), the event that celebrates American journalism by damn near destroying it, year after year. No, the injuries that may prove lethal were self-inflicted.
Over the last 36 hours, Wolf’s defiantly crude but often wrongly characterized 19-minute comedy rant in front of the country’s elite journalists, a gaggle of top aides from the Trump White House, and a national TV audience at the WHCD has become a kind of Waterloo in the war over truth, lies and resentment in Donald Trump’s America.
Wolf’s monologue — which targeted both patently dishonest Trump aides like Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway and the too-obsequious reporters who cover them — put an exclamation point on where people stand on the state of American journalism today. But it wasn’t where the rubber hit the rubber hit the road. That happened nearly 1,000 miles away, at roughly the same time, in a very different Washington — Washington, Michigan.
The case for a tough but fair, independent and not-deferential free press was best made by President Trump, at a mass rally that was his latest and most audacious attempt to party like it’s 1935. Once again, Trump launched outrageous assaults on our democratic norms (making New-York-mafia style threats against a U.S. senator who dared question the dubious background of a cabinet nominee) and on basic human decency (whipping up a loud “boo” by noting no Hispanics were in the house) that we now treat as all too commonplace. But the overriding theme, again, was whipping his base into a frenzy against the mainstream media, proclaiming that, “These people, they hate your guts!”
It’s the approach that made Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States. It works. It encourages millions of Americans to hate the guts of the media and to question any negative information they report about Donald Trump. After Trump’s toxic speech, one rabid partisan leaned into the press holding pen to yell again and again, “You degenerate filth, all of ya!” at the journalists placed on display at these events like caged animals.
This Trump supporter repeatedly yelled at the press, calling media “degenerate filth” and to get out of his country after the Michigan rally concluded pic.twitter.com/hbd8vhpVYc
— Brianna Sacks (@bri_sacks) April 29, 2018
It would be comical were such hatred of the media not a) the glue holding together Trump’s base, keeping him at a reelection-possible 40 percent approval despite a slew of scandals and a failure to deliver much for the middle class and b) the underpinnings of a serious assault on press freedom in the United States that’s taking place right now, under the radar of our post-Michelle-Wolf hyperventilating.
Fact: Once again, the respected group Reporters Without Borders has dropped America in its annual rankings of global press freedom to 45th out of 180 nations, an embarrassing showing for a country that once boasted our 1st Amendment rights as proof of “American exceptionalism.” To be fair, some of these problems predated the Trump presidency, including the war on whistleblowers (thanks, Obama) and arrests of reporters covering protests in St. Louis and the Dakota Access pipeline. But RWB blames Trump and his fake attacks on “fake news” for taking us to a new low. Said its secretary general Christopher Deloire: “The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies.”
Fact: The laughter (or non-laughter) from Wolf’s shtick had barely died down when Buzzfeed reported that the new guidelines of instructions from the U.S. Justice Department for its prosecutors has removed a longstanding section that was headlined, “Need for a Free Press and a Public Trial.” This could be viewed as an anomaly — albeit a troubling one — if it hadn’t come just a few weeks after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began compiling lists of journalists and other media influencers for monitoring purposes. Clearly, the Trump administration is laying the groundwork for moving well beyond the “they hate your guts” stage of media bashing.
Fact: The memos from former FBI chief James Comey about his 2017 interactions with Trump — inartfully wrested from the Justice Department and leaked by pro-Trump members of Congress — paint a devastating picture of what top U.S. officials really think of the 1st Amendment. Comey records Trump as relishing the idea of arresting journalists and even joking about their rape in prison, saying: “They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk” about ending leaks of government secrets. Before you lionize Comey for exposing this, note that a) he laughed at the president’s rape joke and b) it was Comey who suggested that whistleblowers who expose government malfeasance get their head paraded around on a pike “as a message” to keep citizens in the dark.
Let me be as clear as I can be: The notion of a free press in America — enshrined in the Bill of Rights, celebrated by earlier chroniclers of U.S. life like Alexis de Tocqueville, hailed a model for the world’s other nations to emulate — is standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into an abyss. I’m currently reading a book that should be required reading for every American — How Democracies Die, by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — because it shows that daily slings and arrows that can gradually crush our liberties, without the drama of a revolution or a military coup. High on their list is the slow erosion of press freedom — and that’s well underway.
This Saturday night at the Washington Hilton, with so many of our best-known media figures brought together for one night, nationally televised, was a chance for journalists to make their case for saving that liberty — or for surrendering to the bullying and threats of an autocratic White House. The way it played out was an embarrassment to journalism, and thus a setback for this country.
The problem wasn’t Michelle Wolf. You may not like her style or the profanity or her views on divisive issues like abortion rights — that’s your right — but it’s hard to imagine a purer exercise of the 1st Amendment or the reason that the Founding Fathers put it in there in the first place, speaking truth to power, including some sitting just a few feet away. She used humor to do what daily journalism seems disturbingly incapable of doing — pointing out that officials like Sanders and Conway lie openly, on a routine basis — and then reserved her most important riff for the journalists themselves.
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.
What happened in the hours after Wolf’s routine landed essentially proved her right. The reaction was furious and much of it was predictable, but the majority of big-name, well-paid journalists in that room rallied not behind the teller of painfully uncomfortable truths but behind the people who regularly abuse them with falsehoods and deceitful spin. Reporters from news orgs who’ve made millions off subscriptions by marketing “the truth” or keeping democracy lit now showed that their highest values are “civility” and “unity,” which sure looks like unabashed deference.
The most disappointing thing was watching journalists that I’ve admired for things they’ve done in the past — Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and the straight-outta-Philly trailblazer Andrea Mitchell — spread the false idea that Wolf had in some way ridiculed Sanders’ physical appearance, when any close reading reveals no such thing. “The truth is hard,” but correcting a mistake — especially one that has now worked up so many Trump-loving free-press haters — ought to be easy. (And not correcting it violates any code of journalistic ethics that I’m familiar with.)
That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 29, 2018
Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.
— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) April 29, 2018
But even more humiliating — especially for anyone who works in journalism — was the statement issued on Sunday by the leadership of the White House Correspondents Association, which oversees the annual dinner. “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” WHCA president Margaret Talev published on Twitter. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
A truly free press is cacophonous, messy, loud, and divisive — much like Wolf’s monologue. Too often, calls for a “unifying” message and “civility,” in this context, are used to stifle diversity of thought. Talev’s pitiful missive reads like a hostage note from a media elite that has already been bulldozed into submission. And when the American media can be so easily bullied and humiliated by fear of the president, then our press is already not free.
And now it’s going to get worse. It’s hard to imagine anything that could have been more disastrous for the American journalism at this precarious moment than the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. To the haters on the far right, the event only served to fuel every grievance — some legitimate (black-tie journalists sucking up to celebrities and the powerful they cover, out of touch with the average American) and some ridiculous (the lie that Sanders’ looks were mocked, or the fainting spell over Wolf’s crudity by these supporters of “President Grab ‘Em By the [P-word]”) — that elected an authoritarian president in 2016 and could do so again in 2020. And the left just lost any lingering respect for the already abused notion of accountability journalism inside the Beltway. All of which makes it easier for Trumpism to finish crushing the 1st Amendment.
How can we pull press freedom back from the ledge?
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner needs to end, yesterday. I’m hard-pressed to think of any institution in America that — with its clueless elitism — does more to harm the very cause it was created to promote. Replace it with a new mass movement of all journalists — not just the boldface names but the fearless folks who hold local folks accountable from Peoria to Kalamazoo. and declare an April celebration of what’s actually good about journalism. Hold public events that bring together journalists and regular people from their communities. Honor those around the world who sacrifice their lives for the truth. Award scholarships to young journalists who fight censorship and small-mindedness.
It’s time to end “access journalism” as we know it. As the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has noted before, we ought to send in the interns to perform the stenography of recording the lies at the White House press briefings. And any news org that want to be respected ought to call out some of these falsehoods in real time — even if that means the horror of banishment from future briefings (which, by the way, are pretty useless). The main reason for devaluating the briefing is to free up our best journalists to do investigative reporting on the most corrupt regime in U.S. history — which is the opposite of access, and exactly what we need.
Stop treating the present crisis in Washington as business as usual, a slightly bumpy ride that will get better as soon as we magically find the path to “unity” and “civility.” This is a five-alarm fire and the majority of Americans are counting on a free and unfettered press to stop the accelerating death of our democracy before this goes any further. That means breaking some old rules and inventing some new ones, in the name of publishing the truth. I don’t have all those answers but I do know this: This republic won’t survive unless people starting getting as uncivil as hell. Just like Michelle Wolf did.
Because Flint still doesn’t have clean water.