It’s not easy to be a newsroom reporter in the Trump Administration. We’ve got a lazy, unintelligent idealogue with dictatorial fantasies running our country, and it is hard to apply the traditional rules of journalism to a man that intentionally and flagrantly lies. In our college journalism classes, we weren’t taught how to apply the rules in the event of encroaching fascism, nor what we were supposed to do if a President abused the traditional rules of journalism. We were taught to report not just objectively but to report the facts in an upside-down triangle format. Reporting the “facts” means reporting what the President says. It does not mean reporting what we think the President means.
But Trump has taken advantage of those rules and used them to his advantage. He understands that newsrooms are bound by an objective standard, so he can say whatever he wants and the media reports it. The media can and should indicate when what he says does not align with reality, but it doesn’t stop them from also reporting the lies, leaving the readers to sort out the truth.
And the thing is: In this environment, the rules do need to change because we are dealing with an extraordinary situation. Reporters should ascertain intent and call out the lies, because our very democracy may depend upon it.
However, newsrooms also have a huge incentive not to, and that’s what this statement from the White House Correspondents’ Association over Michelle Wolf’s speech is all about:
This is not about a “common commitment to a vigorous and free press,” this is about access. It’s about appeasement. It’s about profit. News organizations are owned by corporations, and in order to turn a profit, they need access to the White House, and to maintain that access, sometimes the media thinks it needs to align with the White House against a common enemy, in this case, Michelle Wolf, who delivered a speech that neither the White House press nor the White House thought “honored civility.” By that, they mean: Wolf used comedy to express truths about the fascistic tendencies of those in power and how the media is complicit when it suits their bottom line.
Look: Wolf was not wrong. Trump has been good for the bottom line (except for that part where “fake news” fucked up Facebook for publishers and scores of outlets are going under). Subscriptions at the NYTimes and Washington Post are up. MSNBC’s ratings have never been higher. Maggie Haberman basically owes her high profile to Trump, so she has an incentive to protect “civility.” People who had rarely ever heard of Axios and Politico two years ago are reading it daily, in part because they have access to White House sources like Kellyanne Conway (who everyone knows leaks) and potentially even Sarah Huckabee Sanders herself.
Holy shit!! I just saw @maggieNYT , Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Larry the Cable Guy cloistered in a back table of Applebee’s in Silver Springs. What does it all mean?!?!— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) April 30, 2018
So, the White House Press Corp wants to protect their feelings (except for Jim Acosta, who I think actually does stand up to the White House. Hopefully we won’t find his body in a dumpster one day).
All of which is to say: The media is only “our friend” so long as being the ally of “the people” aligns with their profit motive, and breathlessly reporting on Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Don Jr., and Russia aligns with that profit motive. Supporting the First Amendment when it involves a comedienne who calls out the White House and the media in equal measure does not align with that profit motive. If Jonathan Swan at Axios laughs at the Kellyanne Conway joke, Kellyanne Conway isn’t going to be as open with Jonathan Swan about the President’s temper tantrums.
This isn’t about access to the President — he only gives interviews to friendly folks like Fox News — this is about access to the other people in the room that Michelle Wolf mocked.
But rest assured: Wolf got her point across, and she got under the skin of the President, who likened the speech to the one that Seth Meyers gave, which many believe is what prompted Trump to run in the first place.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2018
You remembered!!! Happy Anniversary, Boo https://t.co/CywS8bxz8b— Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers) April 30, 2018
People in power do not like having the truth spoken to them, and that extends well beyond the White House. In an era when White House politics dominates headlines, the people reporting on the people in power are almost as powerful as the people they are reporting on. While they undoubtedly want to maintain a free press, they also want to maintain the access they need to take advantage of the free press, make a lot of money, and keep their jobs. They turned on Michelle Wolf because she had the audacity to expose that.