Expect the White House correspondents to cheer on Michelle Wolf? Think again

What is it with the White House press corps? Is there a more servile group of reporters anywhere in the West?

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I actually really like Sarah,” joked comedian Michelle Wolf to a roomful of journalists at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, as the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sat a few feet away. “I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

Wolf, one of the stars of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, had been invited to the event not only to tell jokes but also, according to her official invitation, to speak “truth to power”. She did not disappoint, lambasting not just Huckabee Sanders but Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway (“You guys have got to stop putting Kellyanne on your shows. All she does is lie. If you don’t give her a platform, she has nowhere to lie”) and the president himself (“Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with”).

Her audience consisted of reporters, anchors and editors whom Trump has denounced as “scum”, “slime” and “sick people”. The event itself was organised by the American equivalent of Britain’s lobby journalists, people who are lied to by Huckabee Sanders on a near-daily basis. So did they cheer Wolf on? Nope. They threw her under the bus. According to the New York Times, “Several reporters who cover the White House approached Ms Sanders in the Hilton ballroom to express sympathy in the immediate aftermath of Ms Wolf’s monologue.”

Others went on Twitter to defend the White House’s spinner-in-chief. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, whom Trump has called a “third rate reporter”, said the press secretary was “impressive” for not “walking out”. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, which Trump has called “dishonest and disgusting”, claimed Huckabee Sanders had been “grossly insulted” and deserved an “apology”. Jeff Zeleny of CNN, which Trump repeatedly dismisses as “fake news”, called Wolf’s routine an “embarrassment” while his CNN colleague Chris Cillizza accused her of “bullying” the press secretary.

What is it with the White House press corps? Is there a more servile group of reporters anywhere in the West? Bizarrely, such is their deference to power that they stand when the president enters the East Room to address them. They conduct the friendliest of interviews with US politicians; lots of softball questions and few follow-ups. “The very existence of this dinner… shows how desperate Washington journalists are to be part of the political establishment,” Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, tells me.

Their obsequiousness pre-dates the arrival of Trump and his cronies – and has had catastrophic consequences in the past. “If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq,” wrote Scott McClellan, former press secretary to George W Bush, in his 2008 memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. “The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

The same could be said today. Confronted by a supremely unqualified, astonishingly corrupt and recklessly belligerent commander-in-chief, who tells lies on an industrial scale and has convinced a majority of Republican voters that the media is the “enemy of the people”, journalists have tried to avoid becoming the story. They have pretended to themselves and each other that they can carry on doing their jobs as normal. In doing so, they have helped normalise the most abnormal of presidencies.

“There are two ways in which it is correct to say that the press helped ‘normalise’ Trump,” agrees Rosen. “The first is the enormous amount of media coverage they gave him during the campaign… and since he became president.” The president is a “great story” and “the public interest and the commercial value in Trump coverage is extremely high”. The second, as Rosen explained in an article in September 2017, is that “if nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd”.

Then there is the issue of access: Trump may have declared war on the press, but does the press really want to make an enemy of the president and his staff? Cut themselves off from sources and stories? The same sources and stories that have proved so lucrative? Remember: thanks to the “Trump effect”, MSNBC is enjoying record ratings and CNN has earned huge profits. Paid subscriptions to the New York Times have soared.

Perhaps, then, the real reason those journalists took such umbrage with Wolf’s routine had less to do with faux outrage on behalf of the White House press secretary, and much more to do with their discomfort when a comedian spoke truth to (media) power. “You guys are obsessed with Trump,” Wolf said at the dinner. “Did you use 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,” she continued. “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

Maybe, just maybe, the truth hurts. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right