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The White House Correspondents Capitulation

Michelle Wolf isn’t the first comedian that the hosts of the White House Correspondents Dinner have betrayed, but she is the first to get run out of town by journalists who had just been tricked into taking a stand against holding powerful people to account for lying.

The self-abasement became complete late Sunday night when the correspondents association president issued a statement lamenting that Wolf’s performance had not been “unifying,” and that she had not “honor[ed] civility,” without specifying why journalism is supposed to be unifying or what, specifically, Wolf had done to draw the ire of people whose first commitment is supposed to be the truth.

It’s easy to imagine a standup routine that journalists would disavow in a more substantive way. A comedian who attacked the first amendment, or who made light of the president’s weight, or the first lady’s physical appearance, or who lacked a factual basis for a specific critique, would draw scorn from the press corps, and rightly so.

But journalists threw their own guest under the bus this weekend for purely self-serving reasons. They allowed themselves to be manipulated by bad-faith actors who want to make it easier for the Trump administration to get away with lying brazenly. These actors fabricated the premise that Wolf was an emblem of media bias not in service of decorum or kindness, but to place clear assessments of Trump’s unprecedented dishonesty off limits. And just as disingenuously, the press obliged them.


The timeline here is instructive.

Wolf completed her set at about 10:40 p.m. Only after it was over did conservatives begin working the refs in earnest. Only after the ref-working commenced did journalists feel obliged to condemn Wolf. And only after the condemnations commenced did the latter bother stipulating, specifically, what they found so inappropriate.

The bad faith of conservative ref workers in this process was almost completely unconcealed. Conservatives ceded their claims to any number of pieties when they embraced Donald Trump as their leader. Snowflake-ish objections to Wolf’s supposed mean-spiritedness should have been self-discrediting coming from Trump supporters. Schlapp in particular underscored just how orchestrated the right’s outrage was. While claiming offense on behalf of the counter-elite, Schlapp—a professional lobbyist of 20 years—pretended to abandon the evening’s festivities, then hung around the Washington Hilton until after the event was over, awaiting one of the biggest official WHCD afterparties.

Journalists did not pause to consider any of this plain-as-day bad faith before deciding to play along—not to advance any higher principle, but simply to neutralize the bias accusations and preserve access to Republican sources. Axios’ Mike Allen made these considerations clear on Sunday when he wrote, “Be smart: [The reaction to Wolf] creates a new hurdle for the White House Correspondents’ Association to lure President Trump, who has snubbed the dinner the last two years.”

If we treat the Trump team’s lies with the scorn they deserve and he may not play nice with reporters, so the truth must lose.

The media in general has proven institutionally incapable, for decades, of responding to bad-faith accusations of liberal bias with anything other than capitulation, and Saturday night was no different.

The problem this time was that they capitulated before conservatives had specified their complaint, which left journalists to imagine up taboos of their own. Wolf did not, of course, level “intense criticism” at Sarah Huckabee Sanders over her physical appearance, and her vulgarities—particularly the ones that essentially paraphrased Trump—were unremarkable. Wolf was most biting in her unsparing contempt for Sanders’ gross dishonesty. And that—the view that journalists should be contemptuous of powerful people, like Sanders, who lie to them—is what Wolf’s conservative attackers were trying to game journalists into rejecting.

Sadly, they succeeded.