The sharp-edged wit at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner was aimed, in part, at the media itself, writes Roger Plothow.
There was a time when the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner was an opportunity to honor good journalism and celebrate the First Amendment’s protection of a free press.
How it morphed into a sideshow full of celebrities highlighted, with rare exceptions, by a mostly unfunny monologue by a political comedian would make for an interesting senior paper by a journalism student. It’s a sham, indicative of our obsession with entertainment. The latest incarnation happened last Saturday night and President Trump – wisely, it must be said – became the first president in many years to skip it.
The headliner was Hasan Minhaj, a “senior correspondent” on Comedy Central’s Daily Show. The result was another uneven attempt at political humor that tended more toward mean-spirited than funny.
Some of Minhaj’s best digs came at the expense of media folks in the audience. That took as much courage as taking on a president of the United States who happens to be sitting on the dais next to the mic, as many keynote speakers have done before to varying degrees of success.
Hard-edged comedy has the advantage of tackling a difficult issue while making people laugh, a delicate trick, indeed. I’ve written before, for example, that most of what CNN does during prime time is not journalism, but more a platform for talking heads to yell at each other.
Minhaj put it this way: “CNN is here, baby. You guys got some really weird trust issues with the public. I’m not going to call you fake news, but everything isn’t breaking news. You can’t go to DEFCON-1 just because Sanjay Gupta found a new moisturizer.”
To me, that’s funny, because it’s essentially true, and not just of CNN. Many news outlets these days seem to have decided that breaking news is anything they put out on an irregular schedule. An announcement that a certain stretch of highway is about to begin a long-scheduled repaving somehow becomes breaking news, apparently to give it an air of urgency.
Minhaj wasn’t done. Looking down at CNN anchor Don Lemon, he lobbed this one:
“All you guys do is stoke up conflict. Don, every time I watch your show, it feels like I’m watching a reality TV show. ‘CNN Tonight’ should just be called ‘Wait a Second Now Hold On Stop Yelling At Each Other With Don Lemon’.”
Again, that’s funny because it’s true. Unfortunately, this practice by CNN and others has left many people confused about what journalism really is.
There were other slaps at Fox News, USA Today and others, though most of the nasty stuff was reserved for Trump. Trump’s absence made that easier.
At the end of the day, whether you think Minhaj’s jokes were funny has as much to do with your politics as your sense of humor. A number of his shots at “the media,” however, were spot on so far as I’m concerned.
Still, a better outcome from this year’s dinner would be for it to be the last of its kind and the impetus to return to a more dignified evening of introspection and celebration.
Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.