The Faux Outrage of the American Press

Today, we don’t mind the tyranny, it seems, as long as it keeps us comfortable

On the early morning of April 30, the BBC announced that Ahmad Shah, a journalist covering the conflict in Afghanistan, died in an attack while reporting from the scene. "Ahmad Shah was 29. He had worked for the BBC Afghan service for more than a year and had already established himself as a highly capable journalist who was a respected and popular member of the team,” the BBC tweeted, as attributed to Jamie Angus, the world service director of the BBC.

Meanwhile in the United States, everyone has spent the week pulling their hair out over what a comedian said in front of a couple of thousand reporters, celebrities and politicians at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.

My adventure began on Friday, when I ran into soon-to-be-retired Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in a D.C. bathroom outside of a luncheon for college scholars. Leaving the bathroom, for some reason I was prompted to say, “Hey did somebody step on a duck?” in a Rodney Dangerfield voice. I heard a laugh, and recognized the congressman. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke about his resemblance to Aaron Rodgers and our mutual admiration of the Green Bay Packers. We touched very little on politics, as it was the bathroom, but I left thinking as long as Ryan is in the bathroom, he’s okay. It’s outside the bathroom when he became unreasonable.

He spoke that afternoon to college students and those of us in the press who are mentoring some of the young scholars. He spoke about his tireless belief in the First Amendment and how he's supported it. He spoke about the vital need to have an independent press checking politicians like himself and the important role we play in society.

He allowed questions from students, but not us reporters, before he scooted out the door. The WHCA set the ground rules for the engagement, and while the students asked some cogent and intelligent questions, I just had one: Where the hell has this support been for the press on the floor of Congress or in the face of a president who has declared war on us? I was so angry at myself for not being able to ask the question, I felt like trapping him back in the bathroom.

This type of behavior is, unfortunately, part of everyday life in Washington D.C. You see it in the "green room” of television shows as pundits and politicians make friendly and polite conversation privately, but act in a very different manner once the television camera is turned on. Then the blood sport begins.
You would think Trump would enjoy a comment from a comedian who said everyone in the press was making money because of him. Hell, that plays right into his narcissistic view of the universe.
The hypocrisy is a staple inside the beltway and has been for years. On Saturday night, as comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage, she told the audience she was there to make jokes and had no other agenda, comparing herself to Congress. By the time she began her 20-minute set, in which she poked fun at herself, politicians and the press and a variety of other people and topics, I was already gone, en route to the venue for Playboy's No Tie Party and anticipating the hypocrisy of the members of the far-right, who routinely insult Playboy. They, of course, were among the first in line to get into the party. Many of them have taken aim at Playboy's decision to host an afterparty. Some have asked me point blank, “Since when did Playboy get involved with politics?”

I tell them, “Oh, around about 1953 or so,” when the magazine began.

I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived to the party; as it turned out, it was not the biggest controversy of the night. As attendees from the dinner filed in, the scuttlebutt revolved around Wolf’s set. I had to quickly find it on the Internet since I’d missed it live.

As I watched it, I shrugged. Some of it was funny, some of it was flat, but no more so to me than any other comedian. CNN’s Don Lemon told me it didn’t go over very well in person, as did a variety of other reporters who’d stayed to see the main event.

Later, WHCA president Margaret Talev said comedians routinely aim to shock and surprise. "Comedy is meant to provoke thought and debate. And it certainly has done that," she said. Having performed stand-up comedy with the likes of Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, Steve Mittleman (a running joke among all of our friends is that whatever happens is always Mittleman’s fault), Jon DeBellis and others, I first viewed the performance as a comedian.

The WHCA's annual dinner is a notoriously difficult room for any comedian. “Tight” is the only way to describe it. Your jokes have to be very fresh, so a comedian hasn’t had a chance to work out the material many times before it is performed live in front of a lot of people who take themselves too seriously. You have to perform behind a podium, which isn’t conducive to a good stand-up experience, and you’re going to be nervous.

It showed.

The younger the audience, though, the more they seemed to like Wolf’s standup routine. Her joke about Trump being the “one pussy you’re not allowed to grab,” her comments about Hillary being out of contact with Michigan, teachers arming themselves to sell the guns to buy protractors, Trump being “Idaho” rich while in New York, “doing fine” as well as the “shooting fish in a Chris Christie,” were all funny. The “Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay” quip got Don Lemon laughing and was enjoyable on a variety of levels.

The uncomfortable part came about seven minutes into her routine and continued as she took a couple of shots at Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who sat about six feet away from her. Sarah looked uncomfortable but took those quips—including one or two which many thought were swipes at Sarah’s physical appearance—with some grace. Mind you, she only had to sit for a few moments in that uncomfortable position while members of the press have labored for 15 months as she’s made us feel uncomfortable doing our job.

I told Sarah of my observance, both about the quality of the standup and her reaction. The president, of course, had to respond at his counter-programming speech Saturday night: "I could be up there tonight, smiling like I love, where they're hitting you shot after shot—these people, they hate your guts..." he said. Yeah, he just made Sarah sit through it.

John Roberts from Fox weighed in tweeting about the WHCA being above the fray and should endeavor to refrain from Wolf’s divisive comments. He didn’t think Wolf was funny. Others echoed his thoughts. The next day on Brian Stelter’s CNN show Reliable Sources, Talev defended Wolf, but by then the backlash had begun.
We in the press should not be helping the guy who wants to bury us by picking up the shovel and whacking a comedian on the head.
I sent Margaret an email expressing my thoughts:
"Funny is in the eye of the beholder. And though we may disagree with what some people say, we should defend to death their right to say it. The WHCA does not owe Sarah an apology. As a member I want to weigh in on that. Please tell me you are not going to do that. This administration owes the American public an apology for trying to destroy a free press. Free speech is uncomfortable. Free speech is sometimes unfunny. Free speech is why we are here. You don’t need me to preach, but I hope you’re not and will not ever consider apologizing for what Michelle Wolf said—or having the WHCA apologize to Sarah or the administration. On the upside, the right hates us for having Wolf speak  and now the left hates us for some of the comments we’ve made publicly after Wolf spoke. You may have found the unity you sought since both sides have common ground in despising the free press. So maybe we’re doing what we should be doing.”

Sunday at 10 p.m., Talev sent out an email that said, in part, “Last night's program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.” While not an apology, the statement did distance itself from Wolf, who by now could care less. Not to be crass, she’s got a Netflix series coming out and the notoriety is advertising she couldn’t pay for. It’s a win for her.

For the press, not so much. The optics are troubling and I have no idea how we as reporters are responsible for unity. We’re responsible for information. It’s the politicians who’ve failed to unify and we can only frame the argument—not make it.

In the end, Wolf didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said by millions of others. The most scathing material wasn’t even aimed at the president or Congress. The hardest material was aimed at the press. You would think Trump would enjoy a comment from a comedian who said everyone in the press was making money because of him. Hell, that plays right into his narcissistic view of the universe.

Instead he got upset, the WHCA appeared to have caved and the worst you could say about Wolf is that she wasn’t very funny. That’s it. She was trying to poke fun. She has no ability to affect public policy. She was merely the voice for millions who feel as she does.  If she failed to be funny at times, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Every comedian knows the risk when they step up on stage—and of all the methods of public performance I’ve ever done, standing alone on stage trying to make people laugh is without a doubt the hardest. That we would distance ourselves from her because what she said wasn’t “unifying” is a little silly. She was a comic. She wasn’t there to sing “Kumbaya.”

My mom and dad always taught me to attack issues, not personalities. So if Wolf failed in that endeavor, then I’m going to try and refrain from falling into that trap. The issue remains free speech. The issue remains freedom of expression. We in the press should not be helping the guy who wants to bury us by picking up the shovel and whacking a comedian on the head.

Today, Ahmad Shah’s family is dealing with a very real loss due to a young reporter trying to give people information they need to stay informed. Every reporter who jumps into bed with our oppressor should be made to go cover a war up front and personal and remember why we exist. It isn’t to sit in a room eating, imbibing and getting upset over whether or not a comedian (a comedian!) made us feel slightly uncomfortable. Distancing ourselves from the comedian we hired to poke fun at the very serious issues we face today is as questionable as Paul Ryan claiming before scholars that he loves the First Amendment while he’s done everything he can as Speaker of the House to ensure our demise.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that he had “sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of mind.” Today we don’t mind the tyranny, it seems, as long as it keeps us comfortable.

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