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The cluelessness of the correspondents' dinner

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Comedian Michelle Wolf entertains guests at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 28. (Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I didn’t go to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend, or for the last couple of years. Truth be told, I’ve always found both the dinner and its attendant parties, with all that self-conscious clubbiness, to be an almost unbearable ordeal.

I kind of thought this is why people got into journalism in the first place — because we’re temperamental outsiders who recoil at the presumption of group identities and mass conformity, which is what makes us painfully awkward guests at company retreats and family weddings. I guess that’s just me.

Also, let me tell you, the food at this thing is God-awful, and unless your news organization has managed to score a prime table near the dais, it’s a little like watching Coldplay from the upper deck of MetLife Stadium, minus the coolness.

All of which is to say that, like many of you, I was left to read the summaries of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s burn-it-all-down monologue, and to follow all the self-righteous back-and-forth on social media over the propriety of a black-tie dinner to celebrate the achievements of an industry that can barely afford paper clips.

A lot of my colleagues were appalled at Wolf’s insults and think the dinner should be amended to become even duller, if such a thing is actually possible. Others consider the whole uproar to be a gross distraction from What Really Matters.

“The president of the United States is committed to undoing journalism,” wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, a media blogger read mostly by others in the media, “and the country’s top journalists are debating a dinner format.”

Well, yes, although I’d argue that the two things aren’t actually disconnected at all. In fact, one has everything to do with the other.

Because what all the perennial preening at the correspondents’ dinner makes clear is that we still don’t understand our own singular role in creating the mean-spirited Trump presidency, and in keeping it afloat.

Before I elaborate, let me say that I find the whole Wolf controversy itself to be a little un-self-aware. I didn’t like Wolf’s baser, personal jokes, and I wouldn’t be proud to have delivered them. Humiliating people on a public stage isn’t the highest form of art.

But you know, this is a dinner that’s supposedly staged to celebrate our commitment to free speech, and you can’t really hold a dinner like that and then turn around and whine about the way free speech was exercised. This is pretty much the main reason the First Amendment exists — to ensure people the right to say things that offend and discomfort the powerful.

And before anyone injures their back bowing down to the poor, aggrieved White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, let’s just remember that she spends her days shilling for a man who has cruelly mocked the disabled, torn into women for their looks and publicly mused on his own daughter’s sex appeal. So maybe this isn’t where you want to get all preachy about good taste and compassion.

Also, if you want to talk about hypocrisy, let’s talk about conservative critics like Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, the lobbyist and White House aide whom the New York Times calls the “it couple” of the Trump revolution, who apparently stormed out of the dinner in a public show of disgust for the media elite, and then tweeted about it from the back of their stretch limo, which whisked them to — get this — the NBC/MSNBC after-party, and then home to their new $3 million place in Alexandria, not to be confused with their weekend retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Fight the power! Viva las Schlappanistas!

Still, it’s not the people who work for Trump or profit off him whom we should be worrying about here. It’s the people who support him, or who are at least willing to defend his antics — in no small part because we’re the ones who find the routine so discomfiting.

Trump’s victory in 2016 brought forth an outpouring of self-flagellation and banal reflection from people in my industry. We’d lost touch with the country, is what dozens of Washington journalists said and wrote. We didn’t know how angry all those white voters were. We didn’t know how anxious they felt about the future, how desperate they were to overturn the order.

Never have so many keyboards been worn out in the service of such nonsense. Of course we knew. No one travels the country as widely or talks to as many voters as a campaign reporter. Some of us had been writing for years, even decades, about the growing alienation of less affluent white voters. Literally thousands of stories had been devoted to the subject.

But that facile explanation — this idea that we just didn’t know the depth of the rage out there — enabled us to sidestep the harder reality, which is that a lot of that rage was directed squarely at us.

For 20-plus years now, a lot of Americans have been taking in the smugness on cable TV and watching journalists chase their own brand of celebrity, and they’ve decided that the political press corps is a pretty good stand-in for everything that’s wrong in a country where a small, educated stratum of the society reaps all the economic benefit and shapes all the public opinion.

Then, as now, the polling on Trump tells a fascinating story. A lot of people who say they support the president don’t especially like him, or admire his behavior, or agree with him on issues. But as long as every dumb thing he says makes us (and urban Democrats) jump up and down and rend our clothes and scream about the death of fact and the end of civilized society, they’re willing to overlook all that for a while.

I hear from readers all the time who say some version of this: Trump may not be great at governing, but if he’s making you feel less relevant and less powerful, then at least something’s going right.  A sizable bloc of voters reviles the political establishment, and no embodiment of that establishment looms larger on their screens than we do.

So the main problem with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner isn’t the glut of almost recognizable movie stars, or the ugly brand of partisan humor, or the ill-fitting tuxedos and carbon-fiber filet mignon. The problem is the showy display of vanity, pretension and tribalism that reinforces the worst idea of what political journalism is all about.

For 364 days a year, a lot of my colleagues do work that defies Trump’s phony outrage and disproves his cliché of a lazy, elitist, attention-craved media. And then, for one stupid night, we go out of our way to prove him right.

How about this? Next year, if you want to honor the scholarship winners who are supposedly at the center of this event, then hold smaller events in each of their communities instead. Set out to change perceptions, instead of mindlessly reinforcing them.

C-SPAN won’t cover that, I suppose, and the “it couple” won’t make an appearance in their limo, either.

I’m pretty sure journalism can endure.

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