Photo: Getty

To hear some political journalists tell it, comedian Michelle Wolf killed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in the ballroom Saturday night, with the lead pipe.

The faux-controversy over Wolf’s predictably cutting performance has ranged from public tut-tutting of the event by elite reporters to reported mea culpas from journalists to White House aides who found themselves on the receiving end of Wolf’s barbs. The White House Correspondents’ Association is already tossing around ideas for altering the annual event—dueling comedians, anyone?

Riding the tail-end of this wave of public condemnation is The Hill, a once-wonky Washington newspaper that has tried to reposition itself as a national platform for breaking political news. In a letter to the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association which was made public on Monday, The Hill’s chairman James Finkelstein threatened to pull his organization out of the event next year unless it undertakes “major reforms.”

“In short, there’s simply no reason for us to participate in something that casts our profession in a poor light,” Finkelstein wrote to Thomas Emma, executive director of the WHCA.

Never mind that changes to the event are almost certainly coming regardless of whether The Hill or any other publication shelves its rented tuxedos next year. It is hard to argue with the notion that the dinner reflects poorly on the national press.

Advertisement

But what exactly about this year’s event shook Finkelstein to the bones?:

We recall fondly how past dinners were tremendous spectacles of dignity that were enjoyed by all.

Comedians headlining those dinners were sharp and made fun of both the media and the Commander-in-Chief in a way that could induce laughs while not being so offensive and vulgar that C-SPAN actually cut off its radio broadcast, as was the case this year for the first time ever.

The kind of jokes told by this year’s headliner, Michelle Wolf, were out of line for an event that’s supposed to be fun — and fair.

Advertisement

But of course: Civility. Much of the discussion since Saturday has centered on the dinner’s entertainment choices, as Wolf supposedly ruined the press corps’ once-a-year chance to put aside its differences with the current political regime and boogie to the First Amendment. The New York Times reported yesterday that CBS News executives have also discussed ditching the event on these grounds.

It is telling that the “scandal” here—manufactured by the right and tacitly accepted by many mainstream reporters—was Wolf’s acerbic commentary on a corrupt system, rather than that system itself. Nowhere does Finkelstein acknowledge, for example, the absurdity of journalists partying with the rich and powerful at a black-tie gala in Washington. “Tremendous spectacles of dignity” these events were not. Nor does he nod to the added silliness of doing so with members of an administration that literally treats the media like an enemy.

There’s one other thing Finkelstein forgot to mention: He’s been quoted as a longtime friend of Trump’s in the past. “Yeah, I happen to know the president,” he told Bloomberg in September. “But it’s irrelevant. The model of The Hill is down the middle.”

Advertisement

Down the middle of any trending story of the day, at least. Those familiar with The Hill’s recent work may recognize its cable news-ified Twitter feed, with myriad “JUST IN,” “WATCH,” and “#BREAKING” lead-ins to whatever viral clip or report cutting through the political internet at any given moment. Finkelstein defended his outlet’s laser-like focus on Trump’s every move this way to Bloomberg: “You have to go hunting where the ducks are, right?”

This week it is the political establishment quacking about how rude a comedian was to them on Saturday night. I suppose PR props are in order for jumping on the bandwagon of criticism while the SEO furnaces still burn hot.


Read the full text of Finkelstein’s letter below:

Dear Mr. Thomma,

I am Chairman of The Hill.

The Hill, which has participated in the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner for many years, does not plan at this time to participate in the event moving forward.

In short, there’s simply no reason for us to participate in something that casts our profession in a poor light. Major changes are needed to the annual event.

“We work to ensure a strong, free press and robust coverage of the presidency,” reads your website.

“We share the belief, held by our country’s Founders and enshrined in the First Amendment, that an independent news media is vital to the health of the republic,” it continues.

We all agree. But that also means that the dinner must be non-partisan and done without hostility and personal animus toward the party that occupies the White House — regardless of who is in power.

We recall fondly how past dinners were tremendous spectacles of dignity that were enjoyed by all.

Comedians headlining those dinners were sharp and made fun of both the media and the Commander-in-Chief in a way that could induce laughs while not being so offensive and vulgar that C-SPAN actually cut off its radio broadcast, as was the case this year for the first time ever.

The kind of jokes told by this year’s headliner, Michelle Wolf, were out of line for an event that’s supposed to be fun — and fair.

Based on what Americans witnessed on national television at Saturday night’s dinner, a once-fine evening celebrating the strong, free press the WHCA speaks of has turned into an angry display and ad-hominem attacks.

A solid majority of journalists from the left and right have condemned this year’s comedian and rightly so.

The association made apologies, albeit not to the press secretary, only after the pressure compelled it to happen.

We hope the dinner can get back to talking about the importance of the Fourth Estate without the kind of ugly sideshow that completely overshadowed the event this year.

Along those lines, we will happily donate in the future to the WHCA scholarship program and hope this program can produce future journalists to fight for freedom of the press while remaining non-partisan.

In the meantime, without major reforms, The Hill no longer wishes to participate in future dinners.

Sincerely,

James Finkelstein