It’s the Trump Era, so I must open with a clarification: I don’t mean this literally. Many of the journalists I’m about to deride have done great work uncovering truth that those in power wish to remain hidden. That is the ethos of journalism. Which is why a half-assed roast, plus a fancy dinner encompassing Washington’s elite—including those same folks who have spent the other 364 days of the year producing good journalism—is so insulting.
Not everyone who shows up is complicit in the act, but they all contribute to the spectacle—a spectacle which only serves to demonstrate how those in power quite literally own everything in America. We are trapped inside a corporate oligarchy in this country, and the gatekeepers have abandoned their posts to drink fancy cocktails with those in control of the only remaining levers of power over our oligarchs—which have also been sold off to America’s owners. If you had to distill the problem with the very premise of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) down to two words, they would be “access journalism.”
“Access journalism” is a bit redundant, as it is impossible to do good journalism without some kind of serious access to a solid source of information. But the term became a dirty word over the course of this millennial’s lifetime as we saw a rise of reporters and pseudo-reporters simply printing the words of their sources, like “Bush administration officials” saying “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” The Grey Lady is a famed publisher of Department of Defense edicts, while The Washington Post, particularly David Ignatius, is known for its CIA-friendly reports. Good information does come out of these relationships, but since “access journalism” (as it’s derided) is inherently subservient to power, information that power wants to reveal is ultimately the modus operandi of these relationships.
The problem is, that’s the way the world works. That’s the way it’s always worked. Much of our present paralysis is informed by the failed promise that was the End of History in the 1990s. There is still much work to do to bring this age of prosperity to the masses. The annoying tendency of journalists to fall on their sword and exclaim the difficulty of their job has real truth to it. Developing and maintaining sources while verifying the information they present is far from a simple task, and because we live in an oligarchic world, the structures from which information emanates are ultimately controlled by the power that journalism is supposed to check. Journalism is hard. Really really hard.
That’s why I’m an indoor cat, writing takes from the safety of my computer. I respect the hell out of journalists busting their asses every day to uncover the truth. I did sales for the last near-decade before switching over to writing full-time for Paste, and I made the career move to get away from the war for information on the ground. I simply got burned out. I used to tell prospective clients that sales folks are the foot-soldiers of capitalism—and you can say the same of journalists in mankind’s eternal endeavor to reveal the truth of our nature.
Journalists—especially those at the nation’s six major media conglomerates—have an immense responsibility to the public, and that’s why the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is so aggravating. Symbolically, it’s the exact opposite posture they should be taking. In a sense, journalists work for us in the same way that politicians do. That’s why no one pushes back when journalists call their work the 4th branch of government.
Not to mention, hiring a comedian to roast the D.C. press corps and politicians may seem like an inclusive experience—an armistice day, as many have described the WHCD—but your friends are supposed to roast you. Unless the Washington press corps is sending us a very disturbing subliminal message, they’re likely just mimicking the roasts that Comedy Central televises, where famous people pay less famous people to write jokes about way more famous people. It’s all a farce for the sake of farcicality, which is fine for Comedy Central, but not so much for C-SPAN. I mean, we don’t really think that Obama wrote any of his WHCD bits, right? He’s a funny guy, but he’s got better things to do than write a ten-minute stand-up set. The whole spectacle is such highly concentrated performative bullshit that it can destroy a year’s worth of goodwill in a single night.
The only good thing that has ever come from this night of self-serving nonsense was Stephen Colbert standing ten feet away from the most powerful man in the world, and unloading all of his heavy artillery.
The New York Times and The Washington Post debuted new marketing campaigns and slogans in the Age of Trump. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and the “Truth Campaign” are designed to sell papers—not serve as an edict to the journalists working under cover of two of the most consequential journalistic institutions in the world. Freaking out over a joke (made by a comedian they hired to make jokes!!) at the expense of a senior Trump administration official is so transparently phony, I explode with rage when I even begin to contemplate writing the words which define my anger, so I’ll tag in Deadspin’s Albert Burneko to explain the genesis of my angst:
Beyond that, as a basic function of her job, [White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders enjoys access to the water main of American political consciousness unmatched by pretty much any living person not named Donald Trump—a privilege she uses only and entirely for the purpose of pumping poison into it, aided by a healthy plurality of the people in that room but not by Michelle Wolf. I doubt there is a forum in existence in which Wolf could do anything that would qualify as “bullying” the press secretary of the President of the United States, but even if there is, the fucking White House Correspondents’ Dinner isn’t it.
In the wake of the WHCD, journalists are holding a comedian to a higher standard than the mouthpiece of an administration that constantly lies to them. This is madness. Fire the White House Correspondents’ Dinner into the sun. It’s a pointless endeavor that only serves to reinforce a cynical narrative that proves itself true damn near every day. It’s a glorified roast put on by a bunch of humorless D.C. creatures, as this absolutely insane chyron by CNN demonstrates (H/T to @PatrickRuffini for capturing the screengrab).
America is a sclerotic democracy becoming more corroded by the day, and we can point the finger at entrenched powers. Powers who take more each day while leaving the rest of us with less. If outlets like CNN, the NYT and The Washington Post took their new marketing slogans seriously, they would never be seen gallivanting around with the complicit parties in America’s collapse. Their job is to challenge power, and the very premise of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner flies in the face of everything that journalism stands for.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.