On Dec. 12, 2017, CNN’s Jim Acosta appeared on-air to detail another disturbing episode in the media’s struggles with the Trump White House. At issue was a “pool spray” — essentially an opportunity for a group of White House-covering journalists to witness an official event and perhaps throw out a question or two — following President Trump’s nasty tweet sliming Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Before the pool spray, reported Acosta, he’d received a warning from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “In the moments before I asked the president the question in the Roosevelt Room as he was signing the National Defense Authorization bill, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pulled me aside — this was prior to me asking that question of the president. And she warned me that if I asked the president a question at this pool spray, as we call them, that she could not promise that I would be allowed into a pool spray again,” said Acosta, who added that this was a “direct threat coming from the press secretary to me.”
That encounter appeared to veer into the in-box of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), the group that exists to “ensure robust news coverage of the president and the presidency,” as well as to orchestrate its annual namesake dinner.
Pressed on the Acosta matter, the association pushed out this statement:
The snark wrote itself:
Carefully worded statements are the province of the WHCA. Looking back on 2017, the association compiled a list of pluses and minuses that drew some gnarled derision.
Of course, the White House Correspondents’ Association — no association, really — could not possibly pen a statement in response to every last Trump media outrage. Just last week, for example, the president celebrated one of his signature accomplishments in that instantly famous interview on “Fox & Friends.” Speaking about his supporters, he said, “They don’t know it’s fake news. I have taught them it is fake news.”
Margaret Talev, the Bloomberg News reporter now serving as WHCA president, told the Erik Wemple Blog months ago, “The ongoing public undercutting and assault of the free press is really problematic,” she said. “It’s troubling to me as a journalist and troubling to me as an American, but it’s something we have to do our jobs in the face of for now.”
And for a bit of historical enlightenment, who can forget the time that two WHCA titans used a USA Today essay to establish rough equivalence between the Trump and Clinton campaigns vis-a-vis their approach to the media?
Extreme caution. Bland statements. Neutrality above all else. Those are the pillars of the WHCA’s approach to the Trump White House. For more on this dynamic, check out New York University professor Jay Rosen’s new piece, “What savvy journalists say when they are minimizing Trump’s hate movement against journalists.” The gist: White House correspondents preoccupy themselves with matters of access and protocol while the president’s “fake news” campaign hacks away at their profession’s very core. “It’s just theater,” said New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker at a WHCA event.
Now consider this incongruity: It was this conciliatory and deferential organization that hired comedian Michelle Wolf to provide the entertainment at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. She killed it, in every way possible. Her jokes were original and nasty, as she roasted Sanders herself, who was seated nearby at the head table at the invitation of the WHCA itself; she did stuff about vaginas, stuff about President Trump and hookers, stuff about the day’s news; she advanced her own career by offending scores of longtime Washington types who used Twitter to express their consternation over her raunch-filled riffs.
And Wolf may have killed off her featured part of the event itself, as Washington journo circles are discussing not health-care reform, not entitlement reform, but dinner reform:
So this is where the debate is parked: Should we bag the comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? Or should we perhaps move to a less controversial format. Jimmy Kimmel suggested a juggler, if people can’t handle the barbs of a professional comedian.
Talev issued a mild statement responding to the dismay:
I want to tell you how much your kind words meant to me following my personal remarks at last night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner about the roots of my belief in journalism’s essential role.
I also have heard from members expressing dismay with the entertainer’s monologue and concerns about how it reflects on our mission. Olivier Knox, who will take over this summer as our president, and I, recognize these concerns and are committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward. 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. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.
Every day we are working hard to advocate for our members and ensure coverage that benefits the public, and the dinner is an important opportunity to highlight and maintain our essential work. The White House Correspondents’ Association remains dedicated to that mission.
Bolding added to highlight this situation: The president of the United States is committed to undoing journalism, and the country’s top journalists are debating a dinner format.