April 30, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Michelle Wolf Debate Is Why Americans Hate Elite Journalists

Fortunately, the tide is turning against reporters who play along with the powerful.

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I’m going to leave most of the Michelle Wolf controversy to others.

Meanwhile, I want to make a few observations about the reaction to the comedian’s roasting, at the White House Correspondents Dinner over the weekend, of the president, the president’s staff and the Washington press corps. Reactions were many. I want to focus on the one represented by CNN’s Chris Cillizza:

“Bullying,” “mean,” “insulting”—yes, elite journalists really did use these and other words to describe Wolf’s punch lines at the expense of Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Wolf is a writer for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” among other things.) If you did not watch the annual event, as most Americans did not, you can be forgiven for agreeing with Cillizza. After all, who’s going to say, “Bullying. I’m for it”?

But let’s remember who we are talking about:

  1. a high-ranking official of the United States government, who also happens to speak for the planet’s most powerful human being.

  2. a comedian. 

Given “bullying” is about the abuse of power in a context in which power is uneven, anyone should walk away from Cillizza’s tweet thinking, at the very least: “Um.”

I’m going to argue, perhaps naively, that Cillizza’s view is the press corps’ minority view, but he certainly isn’t alone. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell expressed sympathy for Secretary Sanders as did the New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman, who praised her fortitude. But even if a minority, we must ask: why are they doing this?

You could say it’s genuine. But that runs counter to the fact these are elite Ivy League-educated journalists whose job is understanding the machinations of power.

In other words, they’re not stupid. 

They see the utility of expressing compassion for the powerful, especially the powerful who already believe they are victims of militant liberalism, political correctness and other fictions. The conclusion is that elite journalists are playing along, and in playing along when they should be holding power to account and informing the citizenry, they demonstrate why most people hate elite journalists. 

It’s not telling the truth that most enrages most normal people (though truth-telling does enrage people). It’s the betrayal of virtues that elite journalists embrace to set themselves apart from power but abandon when it becomes professionally convenient to do so. Yes, wonder of wonders, it makes normal people mad when journalists, who are supposed to convey the truth, end up peddling fictions to gain access, win favors and otherwise act as if they are not set apart from power but a part of it. 

But this doesn’t end with journalists betraying their values and normal people getting pissed off. There are real-world implications to reporters playing along. When elite journalists make exceptions for bad-faith actors who are not interested in even paying lip-service to journalistic values, they expand the public sphere and in doing so, they make room for phony debate, con artists, frauds, and ideas damaging to democracy. I see no more significant case in point than the presidency of Donald Trump. 

This, thank God, is changing. 

Since Trump’s election, we have witnessed a public sphere working to exclude voices that had been accustomed to being central to national debate. I’m talking about fringe writers like Kevin Williamson getting booted from The Atlantic, and I’m talking the excoriation of right-wing commentators in the New York Times. But I’m talking generally about a pantheon of voices—the so-called Never Trumpers—former pillars of political thought struggling to maintain the intellectual capital they had. 

This is thanks to Trump but also thanks to the reaction to him.

Due to the president’s victory, the Republican Party no longer requires the service of conservatives like William Kristol, George Will and Rich Lowry to intellectualize its greed and cowardice. The Republicans can win without all that. 

Due to the Trump backlash, mainstream publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic are under enormous pressure to rid themselves of people the mainstream believes are beyond the pale. This mainstream is probably liberal (though not leftist), but that’s partly because the GOP has less of a stake in the public sphere than it used to. They don’t need the Kevin Williamsons of the world to win.

Elites play an important role in democracies, like it or not, but elites must be watched, scolded and even hounded out of town when they behave badly. I’m not surprised to see Cillizza and his ilk playing along with the powerful but I am pleasantly surprised to see so much pushback from normal people enraged by their fraudulence.

Alas, Cillizza and his journalistic ilk will always be with us. They are like cold sores. But like cold sores, they can be treated, minimized, tamped down and kept away from the center of life. They were a majority, but they are increasingly a minority. They are finding themselves penned in, and that, my friends, is worth celebrating.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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