THE MORNING PLUM:
As the controversy continues to rage over comedian Michelle Wolf’s barbed routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the insta-wisdom of pundits and reporters has concluded, in the words of Axios’s Mike Allen, that the media handed President Trump a “big, embarrassing win.”
This is true — but not in the manner these people are claiming. Rather, members of the news media handed Trump a big win by failing to seize this occasion to acknowledge that the basic thrust of Wolf’s critique of the media’s institutional performance in 2016, and of the media’s current challenges in dealing with a White House that lies with unprecedented abandon, was 100 percent correct.
The White House Correspondents’ Association has capitulated to criticism and put out a statement saying:
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.
This came after multiple high-profile members of the news media sharply criticized the routine, with some even saying it would compromise public faith in the press’s ability to be objective. Trump himself just tweeted that the dinner was an “embarrassment” and proof that “FAKE NEWS is alive and well” in this country.
It’s useful to divide Wolf’s lines into two categories. First, there were the personal shots at Sarah Huckabee Sanders and at Kellyanne Conway. Second, there were the broader critiques: Wolf pointed out that Sanders and Conway lie relentlessly, asked why news orgs keep giving Conway a platform, and then said this of Trump: “What no one in this room wants to admit is that … 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.”
The lines in the first category didn’t seem awful for a stand-up comic. But, for the sake of argument, let’s concede for now that they did cross a line. Once this concession is made, it only becomes more apparent, not less, that the media and the WHCA alike both botched this episode horribly, in ways that hint at a deeper problem with our discourse that will have continuing consequences for their own profession.
Here’s why: Even if Wolf did stray into the personally offensive, everything she said about the news media as a profession is 100 percent right. Which working reporter today would deny that the Trump campaign and now the Trump White House have broken new frontiers with the frequency and outright audacity of their lying, and that this has continued to pose serious challenges to the media as an institution? Some reporters and editors have themselves acknowledged as much. This legitimately is a problem the press faces. How many reporters and editors seriously think the news media have solved it?
The second claim — that the media helped create Trump and are now profiting off of him — may be somewhat more controversial. But I doubt many editors and reporters would deny that serious institutional mistakes were made, such as devoting too much unfiltered airtime to Trump’s rallies. This legitimately is a topic of introspection among many of them, and among those who don’t acknowledge this, it should be.
The point here is not that members of the press don’t talk about these things regularly. They do. In some key respects the press has risen to the challenges of the Trump era magnificently. And in her speech to the dinner, WHCA President Margaret Talev talked about the need to stand up for the core mission of the free press now more than ever.
But here’s the big mistake: Rather than just repudiate Wolf’s over-the-line barbs, the WHCA and members of the media should have seized on this opportunity to also acknowledge, in a high profile way, that Wolf’s remarks did point to serious and legitimate problems. How many reporters expressing outrage about Wolf’s superficial barbs also clarified that her underlying critiques are correct? They could have done both. Instead, they inflated the former in a way that helps overshadow the importance of the latter.
Indeed, the WHCA statement accidentally concedes the point. It notes that the purpose of the dinner is to promote its “commitment to a vigorous and free press.” But the substance of Wolf’s critique is not incompatible with this mission; it actually points directly to the challenges the Trump era is posing to that commitment in a manner that most reporters and editors would agree with. This is why the WHCA statement adds the puzzling idea that the dinner is also meant to be “unifying.” Unifying of whom? That isn’t the role of the news media. Truth-seeking is. The WHCA represents news media covering the White House in pursuit of that mission. If the press’ truth-seeking divides people, so be it. The goal of “unifying” was added to create a way to argue that Wolf’s routine violated the WHCA’s mission.
Sorry, but the news media’s truth-seeking will inevitably be divisive
Here is the uncomfortable truth of the matter: The press’s truth-seeking actually is dividing people, and it is the very reason for this that makes what happened such a dangerously blown opportunity. The Trump White House’s unprecedented lying and Trump’s nonstop assaults on the press are, at bottom, an effort to get the news media to be more tentative in calling out those lies and in holding Trump accountable than they otherwise might be. (One conservative said this outright on CNN today.) As Jay Rosen and Brian Beutler write, the larger goal here is to destroy the press’s role as a mediating institution. And if that fails, the corollary mission is to at least destroy that role in the minds of Republicans. This might be working: Majorities of Republicans agree with Trump that the press is the “enemy of the people.”
The press’s truth-seeking is, in fact, divisive. And the WHCA and reporters criticizing Wolf can’t wish that away. Through a systematic campaign of relentless lying and attacks on the press, Trump and his allies are trying to undermine shared agreement on facts as the foundation of our discourse and the currency in holding him accountable, and public faith in the press’s institutional role in providing those facts. Wolf told us that we haven’t yet risen to the challenge of figuring out how to respond. The WHCA and reporters worry that Wolf’s personal barbs handed Trump a win by making his case against us easier to make. But they are facilitating this themselves by failing to acknowledge what Wolf got right.
* U.S. ALLIES GIRD FOR TRADE WAR: The New York Times reports that U.S. allies believe the Trump trade war is about to become a reality, as their exemptions from steel and aluminum tariffs are set to expire on May 1:
The decision on whether to grant permanent exemptions to the steel and aluminum tariffs, and to whom, appears likely to come down to the whims of President Trump, who has seesawed between scrapping and rejoining global trade deals. … The uncertainty is sowing chaos in international supply networks. Car companies and other manufacturers do not know whether ships carrying steel may suddenly be barred from American ports.
The European Union is mulling retaliatory tariffs if Trump doesn’t change course, and warn the post-war trading system is at risk of being dismantled. Of course, to Trump that might be the whole point.
* TRUMP DEMANDS LOYALTY ABOVE ALL: The Post has some deep reporting which reveals that on multiple fronts, the profession of loyalty to Trump has been the most important factor in getting people administration jobs:
Credentialed candidates have had to prove loyalty to the president, with many still being blocked for previous anti-Trump statements. Hundreds of national security officials, for example, were nixed from consideration because they spoke out against Trump during the campaign. But for longtime Trump loyalists, their fidelity to the president is often sufficient, obscuring what in a more traditional administration would be red flags.
This is what Trump actually meant when he vowed to staff his administration with only the “best people.”
* JAMES COMEY ASKS A GOOD QUESTION: On “Meet the Press,” James B. Comey pointed out that before pressing him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump made sure Comey’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had left the room:
“He had just kicked out my boss, who had tried to linger … And so you have to realize that, if he didn’t know he was doing something he shouldn’t do, why was he kicking out the leadership, including my boss?”
That’s a damn good question, and to my knowledge no one has answered it.
* GOP FRETS ABOUT MIDTERMS, BUT TRUMP ISN’T WORRIED: Note this juxtaposition in the Times’ big weekend story: Mitch McConnell thinks Trump is putting the Senate at risk, but top Trump adviser Brad Parscale is telling him something quite different:
In recent weeks, Mr. McConnell has confided to associates that Republicans may lose the Senate because of the anti-Trump energy on the left. … [But] Mr. Parscale has rankled Trump advisers by giving the president a perpetually rosy assessment of his poll numbers. He often tells Mr. Trump his numbers have “never been higher,” according to two advisers.
Remember, because Trump is a winner, he only believes the polling that tells him he is popular.
* MORE REASONS FOR DEMS TO BE CONFIDENT: Democrat Hiral Tipirneni lost the recent special House election by only six points in a district Trump won by more than 20. CNN looks closely at the outcome:
An analysis of the special election returns from the 143 precincts that make up the congressional district in Arizona shows that Tipirneni performed better in many of the Republican-leaning precincts in the district, relative to results from the 2016 presidential election, than in its Democratic enclaves. … Tipirneni’s performance suggests that a “persuasion” strategy with a message aimed at swing voters and disenchanted Republicans could also play dividends.
If the Dem base is supercharged by Trump and swing voters are alienated by him, that is a recipe for a possible wave.
* THE THREAT POSED BY THE ‘TRUMP CIRCUS’: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a good column arguing that the ongoing spectacle that Trump has created poses as much of a threat to our political system as Trump himself does:
Nothing is significant for long, everything is episodic, and old scandals are regularly knocked out of the headlines by new ones. … If there are too many scandals for any one of them to seize our attention for long, all of them taken together allow what are potentially very unpopular policies to take root without much scrutiny. … at a moment when we need politics to be thoughtful and engaging, we have a government whose profound swampiness only further deepens public doubts about democracy.
This is true, and it’s a danger to take seriously, but let’s take a bit of solace in the widespread public rejection of Trump and Trumpism.