White House

Let's See More Michelle Wolf-Style Nastiness in Political Journalism

Wolf's White House-focused hostility was a hell of a lot healthier than the smug chumminess that usually prevails at the annual journalist gathering.


Ron Sachs/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Give us more Michelle Wolf.

We need more of the suddenly-controversial comedian not because she was so great in her appearance at this past weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner—few such contentious performances are delivered so lamely. No, we need more of the likes of Wolf because the White House-focused hostility in her appearance at the annual journalists' dinner was a hell of a lot healthier than the smug, we're-all-on-the-same-team chumminess that usually prevails at these gatherings.

Wolf did go after Democrats, including a Chappaquiddick joke that was a few decades overdue. And she zapped journalists themselves: "You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him." But the zinging of the president and his administration—especially Vice President Mike Pence and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—was certainly nastier and more partisan than is usually expected these events.

And about damned time.

The cozy relationships between elite journalists and establishment politicians is well exemplified by the presence of Andrew Cuomo in Albany as governor of New York, while Chris Cuomo works for CNN preparing and presenting news stories to the public about politicians like his brother. In fact, he's actually interviewed his brother. Chris "is at least one reporter whom I can trust," Andrew wrote in his 2014 memoir, All Things Possible.

How would you like to be the CNN producer pitching coverage of the New York governor's bribery scandals and his attempts to derail investigations of the same?

Over at MSNBC, Joe Scarborough, a former congressman, co-hosts Morning Joe with Mika Brzezinski, who is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, adviser to the Johnson and Carter administrations.

Moving in the other direction are Fox News figures like Heather Nauert and Jonathan Wachtel, who jumped from Fox News network to gigs in the Trump administration.

Journalistic closeness with the current administration is almost exclusively a Fox News thing. While journalists overall are tight with the political establishment, they're generally more comfortable with its more liberal factions. "The political diversity of journalists is not very strong" FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver wrote last year. "As of 2013, only 7 percent of them identified as Republicans (although only 28 percent called themselves Democrats with the majority saying they were independents)."

Arguably, that's largely because the top-level news outlets—the sort that send people to the White House Correspondents' Dinner—are based in and around the same places where the political establishment congregates. "The national magazine industry has been concentrated in New York for generations, and the copy produced reflects an Eastern sensibility. Radio and TV networks based in New York and Los Angeles likewise have shared that dominant sensibility," media writer Jack Shafer wrote at Politico after the 2016 election. Internet publishing is, oddly enough, even more concentrated in those few urban centers.

And the people at the top of the media food chain definitely see themselves as something apart from the rest.

"Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite," Deborah Howell, outgoing ombudsman at The Washington Post, lamented in 2008. "We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we're just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online."

They think they're a little more special—just like the powerful people they cover in the centers of government, with whom they socialize, and to whom they're sometimes related.

That has led to very chummy relations between politicians and the members of the press who cover them on a daily basis. Honestly, you're unlikely to verbally attack people with whom you associate, break bread, and share ideas—especially if you may be swapping jobs with them in the future. You're also unlikely to scrutinize them very closely and thoroughly investigate their conduct.

That's unfortunate, because the government officials with whom White House correspondents congregate wield a lot of power. Those officials can wage war, force their way into personal decisions, crush lives, and destroy prosperity. They can use the power they possess wisely or foolishly, or sell access to it to the highest bidder. And, they sought that power and could walk away from it at any time. Nobody made them take those jobs.

So, when Michelle Wolf steps on stage at a gathering of journalists and displays an adversarial streak toward the current president and his staffers, she's demonstrating an oppositional edge we should see on a daily basis. But we shouldn't see it just, or even primarily, at social gatherings; we should see it in those journalists' day-to-day work. And we should see it in their coverage of all government officials—not just those who belong to the "wrong" faction.

"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," White House Correspondents' Association President Margaret Talev said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."

Well, bully for the scholarship winners. But these gatherings of journalists and politicians have seen way too much civility. They should stop being so nice to the politicians, all of them, and show some more of nastiness in daily reporting on all government officials. No matter the administration, journalists just shouldn't be chummy with the politicians they cover.