BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For most of this week, last
Saturday's White House Correspondents’ Dinner was still causing indigestion.
MICHELLE WOLF: And I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you know? Is it Sarah Sanders, is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is it Cousin Huckabee, is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? But what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] Oh, I know. Aunt Coulter.
BOB GARFIELD: That was comedienne Michelle Wolf, and it was one of her gentler jokes, which sent the political right exactly where you’d expect it would send them. Here’s Fox quoting a Donald Trump tweet on the subject.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it, a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for. FAKE NEWS is alive and well and beautifully represented on Saturday night!”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, as we’ve long complained, the Correspondents’ Dinner is appalling on many levels and Wolf’s set was, for sure, an anti-Trump tirade. But it wasn't news, fake or otherwise. It was comedy, which is, eh, different. The thing is though the disgust was not confined to the White House or the conservative rage-o-sphere.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But Wolf took on, among other things, Sanders’ appearance. Some found that offensive, including NBC’s Andrea Mitchell who is calling for an apology. So too is NBC’s Mika Brzezinski who said…
BOB GARFIELD: And then the Correspondents’ Association threw their political comedy headliner under the bus.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: -- saying last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of the mission.
BOB GARFIELD: To NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen, it was just the latest example of a press corps shrugging off attacks on free speech and their own legitimacy. The president is calling them “enemies of the people” but, you know, do you have to take everything so seriously?
JAY ROSEN: Politico did a big survey about what it's like to report on the White House and the theme of it was that, yeah, there are all these attacks on journalists but actually the press is having a ball because there are so many amazing stories and so many great sources and everybody wants to dish dirt on everyone else. And Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times and in many ways the dean of White House reporting, said, all presidents are grumpy about their press treatment and Donald Trump may be a little louder but it's really no different than what we've seen in the past, an attitude I disagree strongly with.
And Jack Shafer says, sure, there's a lot of bluster and there’s a lot of threats and that would be disturbing if any of it happened but we haven't really seen an opening up of the libel laws and we haven't really seen journalists carted off to jail. And so, what this war with journalists really is, is more like a pantomime. It’s a ritual warfare in which everybody pretends to be really upset but they’re actually kind of collaborating in the production of this conflict.
BOB GARFIELD: I can see how the press just would want to stay out of the fray, to keep its head down, stick to its knitting.
JAY ROSEN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: But there also seems to be a sort of Monty Python Black Knight aspect to all of this: You haven't hurt me, it’s a mere flesh wound.
JAY ROSEN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Trump hasn’t locked anyone up yet or loosened up the libel laws, whatever that was supposed to mean, but is this just a flesh wound?
JAY ROSEN: Well, I understand where they're coming from on that. On the surface, everything is fine, right? Journalism is operating. But if you were able to go out beyond Washington, you would discover some very disturbing facts. For example, a Texas newspaper editor I’ve talked to tells me every time he runs something from the New York Times or Washington Post news service in his newspaper, he hears from subscribers who are enraged that journalism from the Times or the Post would appear in their newspaper. Just yesterday, I had a conversation on Twitter, a public conversation with a reporter from the Bay Area of California who said, every day I see public officials closing the door on me, refusing to answer my questions, dismissing me as fake news. There have been, of course, incidents of violence against journalists, and I think we’ll probably see more of them. And so, this attitude that I can still do my job and everything's pretty much the same for me is just a little blinkered.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s blinkers, there's institutional denial maybe or maybe institutional impotence. There also, maybe more discouragingly, seems to be a kind of a beat-sweetening aspect to all of this.
JAY ROSEN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, if you go, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, we see what you're up to, Mr. President, you rascal, in order to kind of suck up to him, that's worse than simply not recognizing the threat. You were particularly stunned by the voices of disapproval from some in the press over the comedy routine by Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
JAY ROSEN: People who support real journalism, who patronize it by subscribing and who read and consume the product and who think it's important that it survive were agog that journalists would be apologizing to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, considering her daily performance from the podium.
One thing that might be going on here is that Republican officeholders and elites kind of roll their eyes at some of Trump's more exaggerated attacks on the news media but they want to deal with reporters who are sympathetic to them. And one way a Washington reporter can show establishment Republicans, hey, I’m not like those hysterics in the press, therefore, you should come to me with your stories, is to kind of look down on this critique and say, there's no real problem here, there’s no big deal with Trump’s attacks on news media. It’s mostly just theater, it's just for show. And you can see how that is a beat sweetener. It’s a message to Republicans, hey, I’m a reasonable person, you can deal with me.
BOB GARFIELD: Trump has taken this strategy of attacking the Fourth Estate to other important institutions, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, the judiciary. Will, do you think, it dawn on the American people, even the 30% of hard-core Trump supporters, that the guy is simply trying to raise doubt about everybody who would find fault with him?
JAY ROSEN: I think that’s a very disturbing part of this development. One of the reasons why journalists saying, ha-ha, it’s just for show, are in my view being incredibly complacent is the links between his attacks on the news media and the putdown of expertise in the State Department, the attack on the intelligence community, the attack on elections themselves and calling them rigged and the attacks on anybody who is kind of evidence based and, therefore, can show resistance to Trump’s rhetoric and his impulse. Will Americans wake up to that? I don't know because one of our two political parties has kind of sold its soul to the attack on knowledgeable elites. That's the way the Republican Party generates traction. It’s the way it mobilizes its voters. It’s built in. It’s a structural feature. And so, I don't know. It’s, it’s one of the big doubts I have about the democracy I'm living in.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm obliged to ask you, because you are, no doubt, well aware that this show [LAUGHS] itself has vacillated between warning America of the approaching Trump Category 6 storm and trying not to be this week's anti-Trump screed.
JAY ROSEN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't know that we pull any punches but we try not to become a caricature of anti-Trump criticism and to lose credibility by doing that. What's the answer for the On the Media program, on which you are a frequent guest?
JAY ROSEN: Well, I’ve thought about that a lot, and the best answer I have is that we should not become opponents of Trump, himself, but opponents of what he's doing to our institutions and of a political style that erodes those institutions. And I don't know exactly how that translates into practice but I think the start of wisdom is there.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Jay, thank you very much you.
JAY ROSEN: You are welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: NYU professor Jay Rosen blogs at PressThink.org.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the online universe where aggrieved men go to vent, a.k.a., the manosphere.