Politics

Trump and the news establishment: Michelle Wolf deserves a Pulitzer Prize

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Comedian Michelle Wolf roasted Trump and the White House news establishment (screen shot via YouTube).

A comedian made fun of Donald Trump and his inner circle and sections of the liberal U.S. news media wet themselves with anxiety. As political editor Dr Martin Hirst explains, it means the news establishment is losing its grip on reality.

YEP. The doyens of the liberal media were upset that a comedian’s monologue might have put Trump’s nose out of joint, or poked fun at his lackeys and enablers.

But, you know, I love it when the backlash suffers a backlash.

At the annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner this year, a comedian – Michelle Wolf – did the usual and customary monologue, in which the incumbent President, those close to him and some of the news media’s high profile “stars” are given a traditional roasting.

The jokes are sometimes a little “off colour”, sometimes not really very funny and nearly always right on target. Occasionally, the comedian oversteps some imaginary line in the sand and ruffles the feathers of America’s media elite.

This year, some members of that exclusive club got their Dolce & Gabbana nickers in one almighty twist.

You see, Michelle Wolf told a couple of fairly lame jokes about Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

This so upset some members of the Fourth Estate that they immediately took to social media to condemn Ms Wolf’s apparent poor taste.

Among the first to complain on Twitter was the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Maggie Haberman:

Another prominent female journalist, Mika Brzezinski, weighed in with a tough defence of Huckabee Sanders:

However, I am not alone in finding it a bit strange that Haberman and Brzezinski – themselves targets of Trump’s insults and personal jibes – rushed to defend the White House in general, and Huckabee Sanders in particular. Trump accused Haberman of being a “third-rate reporter” in the way he’s also attacked many other reporters by name. Even worse, his insults of Brzezinski included dreadful comments about her “bleeding from the face” following a facelift.

Interestingly, if you peruse Maggie Haberman’s Twitter timeline, it seems that since throwing her lot in with the Trump crew, she’s been backpedalling at speed. The Americans call this “walking back” from the initial claim after you get "pushback" on it.

In the first 24 hours after the dinner, there was a general pile-on against Michelle Wolf, led by many of Trump’s surrogates. That alone should have signalled to the liberal hand-wringers that at least they should just shut up, instead of validating their criticism by joining in.

The worst sin of joining in was committed by the executive of the WHCA, led by their soon-to-retire president, Margaret Talev.

Talev tweeted this grovelling statement on behalf of the WHCA:

I was gobsmacked to read this — talk about throwing a guest speaker under a bus!

What did Talev and her colleagues expect? Michelle Wolf was a known quantity to them, she’s on The Daily Show and has a track record of making anti-Trump comments. As Matt Taibbi points out in a great piece for Rolling Stone, it is well accepted that a comedian performing at the annual dinner is going to offend someone and make some close-to-the-bone remarks about the sitting president.

Until Trump, most sitting presidents have attended the correspondents’ dinner and good-humouredly endured the roasting. But Trump has refused to attend the last two years. Most people reckon it's because the last time he did go, former President Barak Obama famously tore strips off him with a series of jokes. Trump was in the audience and was not amused. Obama actually did it twice in 2011 and then again in 2016 during the election campaign.

In 2016, when Obama said he was going to stop, but had "more material”, the salivating reporters begged for more. Obama’s remarks and the solid laughter from the assembled hacks blows their hypocrisy this year out of the water.

Why the cringing, hand-wringing this year? Well, I can think of two really good reasons. The first is a new twist on the Stockholm Syndrome; the second is the abject failure of the broken news establishment.

Firstly, the White House correspondents might not like it, but they are hostages in the press room where Sarah Huckabee Sanders has charge of the daily briefing in which reporters get the call to ask a question.

If you’ve been following American politics, you’ll know that Huckabee Sanders is combative and has no compunction in lying seamlessly day-in-day-out in defence of the Trump horror show. It was Huckabee Sanders' lying without blinking that Wolf was attacking in her more targeted jabs, like saying she was a character from The Handmaid's Tale.

The correspondents know they are hostages but they are helpless and at Huckabee Sanders' mercy on a daily basis. In the mind of a hostage suffering Stockholm Syndrome, the quickest way to find release is to comply with the demands of your captor. This appears to have happened inside the Trump White House.

On the basis of Wolf’s mild critique – that Huckabee Sanders burns facts and uses the ashes to make “smoky eye” mascara – a number of (mostly female) White House correspondents rushed to Huckabee Sanders'  defence and claimed that the female comedian had somehow grossly insulted the press secretary in a misogynist way by attacking her appearance. Maggie Haberman was, again, one of those who overreached for this conclusion.

As many commentators have pointed out, this is disingenuous and totally mischaracterised Wolf’s intent.

The best takedown was in The Guardian; Arwa Mahdawi doesn’t buy into the fake, bourgeois sisterhood of Haberman and Brzezinski:

If anything, the likes of Haberman, Brzezinski and Mitchell owe America an apology. They’re all incredibly smart women with extremely important jobs. They’re supposed to be holding power to account, not sucking up to it. Rushing to defend Huckabee Sanders under a veil of faux-feminism is beneath all of them.

What’s more, urging Wolf to apologise for what should have been an uncontroversial joke sends an incredibly dangerous message. It suggests that it’s not okay to criticise the President and his people. And it lends credence to Trump’s repeated claims that the mainstream media is out to get him.

This ties into my second argument: these senior political journalists are letting Trump off the hook here and turning their backs on what should be the raison d’etre of their profession.

My reasons will take some unpacking – I’ve just completed a 130,000-word book on the subject [out soon] – but basically, my thesis is that the news establishment is broken and exposed.

Putting it simply and briefly, this means that the news industry has become so compromised that it has lost its way in terms of its mission and political purpose — which is supposed to be speaking truth to power and holding the powerful to account for their actions.

The assembled correspondents (some of them, at least) were offended by the fact that Michelle Wolf also called them out. In her routine she let sections of the liberal media have it with both barrels. She basically accused them of enabling Trump, normalising his revolting behaviour and profiting from his presidency.

It was to this criticism that Haberman, Talev and others were reacting.

But, as I said, it’s great when a backlash suffers a backlash of its own. This has been the fate of the anti-Wolf forces in the past 72 hours. Not only is Maggie Haberman backing down and backing away from her original position, social media has exploded with support for Michelle Wolf. The only people condemning her are people like Sean Spicer, the failed previous press secretary in the White House and Trump’s usual surrogates.

The news establishment is losing its grip and its response to Michelle Wolf’s roasting of Trump is just the latest symptom of its declining power.

As Matt Tiabbi noted in his Rolling Stone piece, there’s something rotten going on with the press corps in Washington DC: 

'Everything that is revolting about the DC press corps was on display in this incident. On the one hand, who cares — it's just a party, right? On the other hand, why are we partying with the people we're supposed to be covering?'

I think Michelle Wolf deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her performance. She was speaking truth to power and the powerful were squirming in their seats.

But, just to be clear, it’s not limited to the beltway pundits. The Canberra Press Gallery here has been guilty of similar kowtowing and it’s no different in the UK and other parliamentary democracies, where freedom of the press is self-sabotaged by insiders careful not to offend lest they be cast out of the loop of drops, faux-exclusives and friendly leaks.

As Michelle Wolf said:

"Flint still does not have clean drinking water."

Flint has not had clean water for four years. The anniversary was a few days ago.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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