Nine journalists were killed and six were wounded in a bombing in Afghanistan on Monday. They were deliberately targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after they ran to cover an initial blast on the streets of Kabul.
And yet ask most Americans about the top story in journalism this week and most would likely mention a comic: Michelle Wolf, whose caustic monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner on Saturday sparked an internet-intensive national conversation.
Many, including some journalists in attendance and many more outside of the Beltway, lamented Wolf’s words — particularly the barbs directed at Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, and Ivanka Trump. Other journalists, and many fellow comedians, defended Wolf.
WHCA President Margaret Talev said the comedian’s words were “not in the spirit of the mission” of a program 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.”
That’s an admirable mission, and the WHCA should strive to fulfill it. It should also ditch the annual dinner — at least in its current form.
Yes, comedians have First Amendment rights. But the White House press corps shouldn’t let a stand-up routine obscure its critical role in our democracy — especially at a time when press freedom is under attack worldwide, including in America.
It’s also inappropriate for journalists to hold an increasingly celebrity-centric annual roast in which they appear so close, even clubby, with the politicians they cover. Why not honor high-quality journalism instead? There’s been plenty of that in the past year, including reporting on Russia’s role in the 2016 election from New York Times and Washington Post journalists who jointly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
President Donald Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year, seized the opportunity to malign the correspondents during a campaign-style rally in Michigan. “These people, they hate your guts,” Trump said of the journalists. Americans offended by Wolf’s biting routine may indeed conflate the comic with the news media and be even more inclined to buy into Trump’s “fake news” narrative.
It’s a shame that Michelle Wolf is the trending name in journalism today. Instead, those in search of truth in an increasingly complex world should be mourning the journalists lost in Kabul: Yar Mohammad Tokhi, Ebadollah Hananzi, Sabvon Kakeker, Maharam Darani, Ghazi Rasoli, Norozali Rajabi, Shah Marai Fezi, Salim Talash and Ali Salimi.