While Samantha Bee was in the mood to celebrate the press at this past weekend’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it was also clear that she was happy to call out the press for its lazy coverage of “The Dauphin of Breitbartistan” whose 100th day in office on Saturday proved beyond a doubt that time was relative. On the old earth, 100 days had passed between January 20 and April 29, but in 2017 America, it was no longer possible to remember a time when the first thought most Americans had upon waking was, Oh shit. What has he done now?
Bee established the rules of her dinner with the short film with which it began. The crowd erupted in cheers upon spotting Allison Janney playing her old West Wing Press Secretary role of C.J. Cregg, and C.J. was pissed that the sorry lot of people sitting in the White House briefing room had the gall to call themselves correspondents.
When Janney runs out of patience with the ridiculous questions, she launches into a monologue. “You know what?” she says, “You people are monsters. Yes. We have freedom of press and that’s a beautiful thing so if a morally bankrupt gang of racist bloggers, anarchists, dominionists, radio hosts, and rancid women haters want to call themselves journalists, no one can stop you. But you are part of the reason nobody trusts the real press. These journalists work day and night to find the truth, write it down, or tell it to a camera and sometimes they fuck it up. And when they do, they apologize. Most of the time. They chase down stories even when the stories put them in danger. Or their phone batteries die because of all the Pepes tweeting abuse at them. And you pretend to be them, ruining their reputation. At least among people too stupid to tell the difference. You are the dregs of a free society. We have to let you exist but we do not have to listen to you. So Samantha Bee will be spending the evening with real reporters.”
And after destroying the room full of imposters with her laser eyes, the screen went dark, Peaches kicked into “Boys Wanna Be Her,” and Samantha Bee took the stage to a spontaneous and thundering standing ovation.
One of the first things that Bee did was to pay tribute to the journalists she considers heroes: the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that has been keeping track of the 1,236 journalists who have been killed while performing their jobs since 1992. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck to open the organization’s home page, and see the photo of President Erdogan—the same man that Donald Trump called to congratulate for cementing his power—with the information that Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other nation. (By the end of the taping, Bee would announce that $200,000 had been raised for the organization.)
Sometimes, when you listen to Sam Bee and Jo Miller, you first realize that both women are exponentially (and I use that term deliberately) smarter than our current president. Miller has multiple advanced degrees—she holds a Bachelor’s degree from Yale, and Master’s degrees from both Cambridge University and Cornell University, where she is ABD. Bee and Miller have hired a writing staff that all hold impressive educational credentials, not because educational credentials make you smart—both Steve Bannon and Donald Trump also hold advanced degrees—but Miller, Bee, and their staff use their intellectual curiosity and research skills to make jokes about this president which also mock his complete lack of knowledge about virtually every subject. They also assume that their audience is smarter than Trump and will roar along with them. And it’s their love of language and research that led to some of the funniest nicknames for candidate Trump, who Bee tried her best to avoid having to call him by his given name.
Among the 43 terms Bee had used to refer to Trump prior to the election were “Bigoted See ‘n Say,” “ The Dauphin of Breitbartistan,” “George Wallace in a wig,” “Casino Mussolini,” and the “asteroid that just destroyed a party of dinosaurs.” What makes these terms funny is that they are plays on words and allusions to historical events, relying on the intelligence of Bee’s viewers to get the different levels of the joke.
Bee never talks down to her audience, unlike Trump, who explains things to his audiences in condescending tones that make one’s teeth hurt, as when he explained to people what the chemical element “uranium” was: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things. But nobody talks about that.” Donald Trump must be used to being surrounded by people who have absolutely no education and have never read a newspaper in their lives. How else do you explain such a mortifying display of utter pedantry that was also nonsensical?
So, if Chuck Todd is frequently lauded on MSNBC as its resident smart guy, how come he didn’t have the intellectual rigor to go after Trump on the basis of this laziness and the bald-faced lies that Trump told to journalists’ faces? The press let themselves get caught up in the fear of being called “elite,” as if anyone doesn’t want to have the country run by someone with intellectual curiosity. You don’t have to be a genius to run the country, but it would be nice if you read a book every now and then. Why was the media so afraid to pound Trump on his lack of understanding about how the world worked? Why did they allow him to say that his health care plan was going to be “the best” or his plans for dealing with taxes would be “the best” or his plan to deal with immigration by instituting a ban on Muslims and getting Mexico to pay for the wall—all material that was present on Trump’s campaign website—why were there no serious questions about Trump’s impossible-to-implement plans? Why did MSNBC and CNN and the rest of the non-FOX press get so caught up in a make-believe scandal about Hillary’s e-mails?
But Todd’s unwillingness to press Trump may have to do with Todd’s shortcomings as a journalist. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted when it reviewed Todd’s book on President Obama, Todd is much more concerned with the “optics” of an event rather than the “reality” of the event.
Indeed, near the end of The Stranger, Todd notes that Obama “shoulders some of the blame” for gridlock by not trying hard enough to play the Washington game. The president is just “wired differently,” Todd writes, “he believes the rational should overcome the superficial.” That such a trait can be cast as Obama’s crucial flaw says much about Todd, the press, and the sad state of our politics.
Being called on the carpet by one of the premier schools of journalism did little to change Todd’s approach to the 2016 election. In a transcript from an episode of Meet the Press that aired on the Sunday after the Republican National Convention where Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination, Chuck Todd asked Trump a series of softball questions in which he would point out some “difficulty” with one of Trump’s proposals, would listen to Trump’s usual word salad where no real idea was expressed or answer given, and then, instead of doing the job of journalist by calling out what he had just heard, Todd just continued the questions as if nothing strange had just happened. Todd asks Trump about his tax returns and Trump repeats the lie that he’s not “allowed” to release his tax returns while he’s under audit. Todd doesn’t challenge him, even though he knows that Donald Trump is lying to his face.
Donald Trump had his pick of some brilliant minds, but chose Steve Bannon to serve as one of his executive advisors. Prior to serving Trump, Bannon was the executive editor for Breitbart News, an extremist right-wing site that publishes information it describes as “news.” Among some of the stories published by Bannon prior to being hired by Trump were those that blamed Muslim immigrants for a rape epidemic in Europe (no such immigrant rape epidemic exists); that taking birth control pills makes women unattractive; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that the Confederate flag is not connected in any way to racism because the Confederacy didn’t fight the Civil War to defend slavery; and that liberals want to do away with genders completely and produce human beings who are one sex.
And it’s in thinking about the human slime mold that is Steve Bannon that you once again realize that this president—rather than acknowledge his intellectual limitations, and therefore surround himself with the best and the brightest minds in the country—has chosen to surround himself with people with limited intellectual capabilities. He could have chosen a “team of rivals” or “the best and the brightest.” Instead, he went for a guy like Bannon, rather than drawing from across the broad spectrum of America’s genius to select noted experts in their field in order for this president to receive the best possible counsel about how to run the country, and how to walk the tortuous path of American foreign policy, that instead, he has surrounded himself with men who have no real intellectual curiosity. That when it came to “diversity,” it can be found in the eggshell, alabaster, ivory, snowy, chalky, pearly, ghostly, frosted, creamy, pasty, doughy, vanilla, color of their … resume papers.
That he is surrounded by people whose thinking is undisciplined and untrained, so that they cannot tell the difference between fact-checked, refereed, debated, contested, tested and re-tested truths that emerge from science and the conspiracy theories that grow in the bullshit factories of the Dark Web or 4Chan; or rumors that have been repeated often enough that even though they are still rumors, and they cannot be traced to a source, they are given the authority of belief when Trump tweets them out.
It is frustrating to the point of pain for my friends, but also people who are reading this article—no doubt—and people who were at the party last night, that the information which would correct the false material being put out by Trump could be refuted if someone had been paying attention in history class. Or read a book. Or counted their teeth. (Aristotle believed that men possess more teeth than women)
It is difficult to locate the moment at which conservatives decided that the media produced a type of news that was biased to such an extent that conservative viewers couldn’t trust newspapers to tell them the truth. The “ideal” of American journalism has always been something called “objectivity,” something that British papers, for example, have less trouble with. In Britain, newspapers have long identified with political positions, which has meant for the most part, that the material on the opinion pages would reflect the sensibilities of the political philosophy the editors identified. In the 1950s, the then Manchester Guardian was the paper of the working class—a Labor-leaning paper that supported the expansion of the welfare state on its editorial pages. It knew that some of the London-based papers were more likely to support the interests of the Tories on their editorial pages, but no one expected that regardless of identification, any particular paper would “make up” news to fit a viewpoint. All of the newspapers reported the facts, although different economic indicators might be more emphasized depending on who was more likely to be reading the paper—workers or management.
But in America, even though it has never been possible to be 100 percent objective in your view of anything—we are human after all—some impossible ideal existed that all that was reported in the newspaper was the 100 percent truth, which lined up with “just the facts.” Of course that wasn’t true either, which is why in the 20th century, alternative newspapers have been reporting the under-reported news for decades.
But these days, you have people who believe that mainstream newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are making up stories. The irony, alluded to in the Allison Janney story, is that it’s actually the propaganda sites that have sprung up on the internet—Breitbart and other sites—that actively make up stories. It’s as if the National Enquirer, which when I was a kid used to run crazy stories about alien bodies found in corn fields alongside the latest salacious gossip about celebrities—all stuff that my mother told me to “pay no attention to because it’s garbage”—has suddenly become the grand dame of legitimate news. And, these days, when standing in the checkout line, the National Enquirer seems to carry fewer stories about a starlet’s overdose and more conspiracy theories about which Democrat is secretly snorting cocaine off his gay lover’s ass.
Perhaps this is the right wing revenge for the press bringing down Richard Nixon. Certainly the work of The Washington Post and reporters such as Woodward, Bernstein and other reporters like Seymour Hersh—who broke the story of the My Lai massacre—all contributed to a sense of shame about what was being done in Americans’ names. While for liberals, that meant holding the government to higher standards and expecting us to do better, for conservatives, it meant finding a way to mute the press. Since the First Amendment is pretty clear that the press cannot be shut down, eroding public confidence in the press by insisting that all reporters are leftists who hate Republicans and Christians has been an effective way to go. Even now, while the first 100 days of the Trump presidency have been a disaster, Trump supporters believe the problem has been that the press has declared war on Trump and are not reporting fairly on him, rather than that he is clearly in way over his head.
The irony, of course, is that the press may have helped to bring Nixon down, but since then, they have appeared pretty friendly with administrations. Who can ever forget Judith Miller’s reporting on WMDs in Iraq, which partially gave the Bush administration justification for its invasion of Iraq?
The press allowed Ronald Reagan to continue his kindly grandfather persona on TV even as his murderous policies in Central America were responsible for the deaths of thousands. The Reagan administration also refused to acknowledge what was going on when a new disease started afflicting largely gay men in New York and San Francisco, and delayed by years the federal research moneys to search for a cure, thus costing millions of lives. It was also the Reagan GOP that made its unholy alliance with the Moral Majority. Coupled with the Southern Strategy that emerged in 1965 in response to the Voting Rights Act, the combination of southern racism and states’ rights combined with Christian dominionism began the “culture wars” against reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, education and attempting to put school prayer back in the classroom, the teaching of Christian theology—namely Creationism and Abstinence-Only sex education—neither of which have any basis in scientific fact. In fact, children who are offered solely abstinence-only sex ed have higher rates of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The culture wars have extended into economic policy too, with opposition to equal pay laws that would compensate women on par with men. These laws are seen as threats to the family as they undercut the idea that the man should be the sole breadwinner in the family. A woman—single or married—who is earning as much as her male counterpart or a married woman earning more than her male spouse—has much more freedom to make decisions about whether to marry, whether to have children, and, if married, whether to remain in a marriage if things get tough.
The problem, of course, is that far too many male pundits want to declare issues of the so-called culture wars to be distractions from the real issues of the economy and national defense, but that’s because they refuse to see that a woman’s economic life can’t be separated from reproduction. Of course, state control of reproduction and national defense are also tied together. As of now, the only way for the military to recruit for cannon fodder is through women producing children. Not surprisingly, militaristic societies often place a great deal of emphasis on childbirth as woman’s heroic duty and contribution to the war effort.
One of the best feelings to come out of being at the Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was the sense that the brilliant woman helming the show was demonstrating to the Washington press (most of whom were over at their own dinner, sans its cowardly guest of honor) how to call out Donald Trump for his policies that hurt vast numbers of Americans, and her willingness to say exactly what she thought of the man whose disrespect of women and inability to observe their personal boundaries is not only criminal, but borders on the pathological.
Bee addressed Trump in the types of terms that those of us watching could only wish the press corps might somehow might the guts to say.
“The maker of American greatness again ran away from the Vietnam war, he ran away from two Republican debates, and now he’s run away from the Correspondents’ Dinner. I guess we know why he wears those lumpy, ill-fitting, old man pants: It’s because he’s constantly shitting himself. It just goes to show you: A giant pussy can get elected President, as long as he doesn’t have one.”