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Pressing Issues

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Michelle Wolf’s WHCD Roast Was Exactly What Access Journalism Deserves

Journalists defending Sarah Sanders as a "victim" of a smoky-eye joke don't care about her. They just don’t like being called out for their incompetence at covering the Trump administration.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders gets up in the White House press room on a regular basis and tells outright lies about everything from policy to prostitutes to pies. And while the media has been wringing its hands since January 20, 2017 over when it’s okay to call a lie a lie, comedian Michelle Wolf stood a few feet from Sanders this weekend and called her a liar, to her face, and with real writerly flourish too: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

This is the line that both conservative and mainstream media folks are choosing to focus on in their critiques of Wolf as unnecessarily cruel and unfairly attacking Sanders’ looks. Which they somehow manage to call out earnestly, despite having stayed mostly mum on Trump’s running commentary on women’s looks, from his comment that Morning Joe co-host Mika Brezinski looked like she was “bleeding badly from a face lift” to his tirade against former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machadeo (calling her “Miss Piggy” and “disgusting”) to his skeevy come-ons to everyone from the first lady of France (“look at you; you’re in such good shape”) to his own daughter (“if she wasn’t my daughter…”). And that’s without mentioning the infamous pussy-grabbing comment or his numerous outbursts about Mexicans, Muslims, and so-called “shithole” countries. Trump’s comments have never drawn as much outrage from all sides as Wolf’s comparatively tame (and true) jokes. And they’ve certainly never received as much attention from the Beltway press, which has now officially been discussing Wolf’s jokes 12 hours longer than any other piece of news lasts in the current outrage-driven news cycle. Why? Access, and the desire to keep it.

Hey look, in my opinion, that Sarah lady’s eyeliner looks like a raccoon with a hangover, but that’s not what Wolf said. The smoky eye joke is a red herring. Because what Maggie Haberman of The New York Times and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and White House Correspondents Association head (and senior Bloomberg White House correspondent) Margaret Talev, who publicly thanked Mike Pence’s press secretary for a tweet about Wolf and how her “classless” routine had ruined Talev’s hard work, are really pissed about is not that Wolf may have criticized Sanders’ appearance—and she didn’t, that was the media’s weird interpretation—but that she took solid aim at their own failings.

And she was right. Because here’s exactly what access journalism looks like, folks:

A fucking journalist thanking the VP’s press secretary for ripping on free speech.

Access journalism is a classy sounding term for the smarmy gentleman’s agreement that underlies political correspondents’ tendencies to gloss over certain politicians’ failings in order to maintain their access to them. So when Maggie Haberman, for example, allows Trump to ramble through various lies and half-truths in an “interview,” without questioning or pressing him in any way, or paints the story of Jared Kushner’s secret phone line with Russia in a slightly better light, that’s so the Trump clan will continue to let her in. Which she sometimes uses to the benefit of the public—noting when Trump is behaving the way he tends to before he fires someone, for example—and sometimes uses to simply butter him up again. As Haberman’s colleague Will Saletan mansplained on Twitter last year, “Reporters work with sources to gradually elicit more info. Be patient.” This is just how reporting works, guys, you have to keep your sources happy so that they will give you more info. Otherwise known as access.

One of the more insidious forms access journalism has taken in the Trump administration is when journalists downplay the seriousness of the president’s attacks on the press itself. Having the President of the United States routinely tell the public that the media is “dishonest,” that anything reported about him that he doesn’t like is “fake news,” is the classic move of the autocrat. It boggles the mind that so many mainstream journalists would go along with it, often advising the public not to take it too seriously, that, as Jay Rosen has noted, “it may look like a fight, but it’s actually a dance.” Here again, it’s likely a question of access: a journalist who lets Trump’s remarks roll off his or her back is more likely to gain access to the White House press corps than one who raises a loud or public fuss about it. Meanwhile, during the same 24 hours that brought us hundreds of tweets, interviews, and think pieces from Beltway journos concerned about poor Sarah Huckabee Sanders being mean-girled, Buzzfeed revealed that the DOJ has quietly been removing mentions of press freedom from its manuals. But hey, it’s just a dance, right?

Haberman has more access to Trump than any journalist in the country at the moment. That’s due in part to her continued, and often public, deference to Trump, his family, and his administration. She was one of the few reporters who leapt to Mike Pence’s defense back in 2016 when he was booed at a performance of Hamilton, chastising people for not showing Pence—a man who would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts if he could, and send all homosexuals to conversion camp, but yet chose to make a grand entrance at a famed Broadway fucking musical—a “level of respect.” So it was not a huge surprise to see her rushing to suck up to Sanders after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday, calling Sanders “impressive” for not walking out during Wolf’s routine.

Many in the public, on the other hand, think it’s “impressive” that Haberman and her cohort have not yet walked out when Sanders starts blatantly lying to them in a press conference. Surely we should be at least as concerned about the norms being flouted by the president and his staff as those being ignored by a comedian at the WHCA dinner, no? Also “impressive” is the way Haberman’s fellow NYT White House correspondent Mark Landler managed to tuck his balls entirely inside his anus in order to pen this spineless love letter to Melania Trump last year. Anyway, I digress. Wolf articulated the problem with access journalism precisely:

“There’s a ton of news right now; a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. But, instead, we’re covering like three topics. Every hour, it’s Trump, Russia, Hillary. 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. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

Zing. That’s what the Habes is habing about. And look, I get it. I mean, first, who the fuck am I to be questioning Maggie Haberman? She’s covered presidential campaigns since 2008 and I live in the middle of the mountains and spend easily half my time cleaning up the poop of various species. I also know exactly how hard it is to get any politician or public figure to agree to an interview, let alone behave like an actual human and not a robot pre-programmed with talking points in that interview. If you make a celebrity look stupid in a story, their publicist will never work with you again and it’s more or less the same with politicians. But the difference between celebrities and politicians, and yes this also goes for celebrities-turned-politicians, is that telling the truth about the latter actually matters to the public and, not to get too highfalutin about it, to the health of our democracy.

So while journalists have been worrying about whether it’s really fair that they call a non-truth coming out of Trump’s mouth a lie when they can’t know whether he was being intentionally misleading or not, what they ought to be focused on, if they’re doing the actual job they’ve been hired for—you know, informing the public, holding the powerful accountable and all that—is whether it’s fair that they sugar coat the things they are seeing and hearing, that they present the opinions of the very people they’re reporting on as unbiased input from “anonymous sources familiar with the story,” that they keep sitting there taking notes and pretending like this is all normal when Sanders, or Trump for that matter, flat-out lies to them in a press conference.

The argument can be made, of course, and has been made, that access is also important for informing the public. That if Trump were to stop talking to anyone in the press tomorrow, that would also be a problem. Would it, though? With a White House that leaks like a sieve and a ton of truly talented investigative journalists digging tirelessly for the truth?

It seems more likely that being searingly truthful about Trump and his administration would hurt the careers of journalists who have made their bones on the back of his rise. Here’s a question: Where would Maggie Haberman be if Trump had lost? Would she be the best-known reporter at The New York Times, or would she be just another faceless campaign reporter, gearing up to cover whatever schmo she’d been assigned to follow for the midterms? Would Katy Tur have a book deal? Would CNN and MSNBC be posting record ratings and actually hiring people for the first time in years?

As much as I love to see so many people consuming the news these days, recounting, wild-eyed, the latest Trump gaffe or bizarre policy reversal, I have to wonder: at what cost?

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