The White House correspondents' dinner competed with a Trump rally Saturday night where he denounced the press
Tim Stanley: He's right; a Democratic-leaning press has gone from being journalists reporting on a war to soldiers fighting in it
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Two parties, two different Americas. On Saturday night, the press gathered for the annual White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington where, traditionally, they would roast the president. But this year the punchline was in Pennsylvania, at a rally President Trump held to celebrate his first 100 days in office.
“I could not possibly be more thrilled,” said Trump, “than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with … much better people.”
Thus are the battle lines drawn: the press vs. the president, liberal vs. conservative, Washington vs. the rest of the country.
It sounds compelling, but it’s actually absurd. The press is not the white knight of democracy. The president is not the people’s champion.
Let’s start with the press. Trump is right: The correspondents’ dinner is awful. It’s an evening of self-congratulation, bad jokes and political bias, where Democrats go to get praised and Republicans to be lampooned. It was at this dinner where President Obama and “SNL’s” Seth Myers famously roasted Trump in 2011. A few years later, the joke turned out to be on them.
What is the press? It’s conservative, moderate, liberal; as objective as possible but sometimes not; struggling to survive in the age of the Internet.
Hard to define, in other words – and yet in recent years it has developed a sense of itself, as if it had some unifying political purpose. Choosing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the men who exposed the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon, to address the correspondents’ dinner sent a clear message: the press is not only here to hold presidents to account but to bring them down.
Were that goal pursued without bias, it would be less controversial. But let’s get real: The press is staffed by human beings, and those human beings have prejudices conditioned by race, class, gender and region.
Politico has crunched the data and claims that the number of Republicans employed in the press is remarkably small. It also notes that as the industry has shrunk it has retreated to New York, Washington and the coastal bastions of the Democratic Party. In 2016, more than half of publishing employees worked in counties that went for Hillary Clinton by over 30%.
Are the values of their geographic and political environments reflected in their reporting? Trump makes it harder to tell. Trump is so outrageous a politician that it’s impossible to judge if the negative press he gets is because he generates it or because journalists go out of their way to dig for it.
But there’s no escaping that Woodward and Bernstein were talking to a largely Democrat audience – an audience that believes the necessity of its profession has been sharpened by Trump. They have gone from being the journalists reporting on a war to soldiers fighting in it.
The “enemy,” aka the President, has a big army behind him, and 96% of Trump supporters say they don’t regret their vote last fall. It has only been 100 days, and disappointment takes longer than that to set in – but Trump’s level of support among his base is still surprising given that he has U-turned on many of the policies that won him states like Pennsylvania.
Labeling China a currency manipulator is gone. Scrapping NAFTA is gone. Funding for a border wall has been delayed. Reform of Obamacare has been stymied. Far from putting America first in foreign affairs, the President has projected US force into Yemen, Syria and the Korean peninsula.
In fact, after 100 days in office Trump looks less like the populist nationalist that parts of the press paint him as and more and more like a standard Republican – albeit an incompetent one.
What one policy survives as definitional to his presidency? Plans for a massive tax cut that, critics say, will largely benefit the rich and corporations. It will hopefully bring corporate wealth back from overseas and spur job growth in Pennsylvania, but it’s far from the radical overhaul of the economic structure that Trump promised.
Trump retains support, however, because he enjoys the same tribal passions that you’ll find within the press. Consider this fascinating statistic: Last year, under Obama, only 39% of Republicans said tax levels were fair. Today the figure is 56%. It could be that simply by having a Republican in the White House, Republicans feel richer already.
So this is American politics, trapped between partisan identities.
Where does the middle lie? It’s harder and harder to find – not because it doesn’t exist but because it is invisible.
If the press won’t speak to it and the parties won’t represent it, there’s a risk that the true world beyond Washington – the world uninterested in both correspondents’ dinners and Make America Great Again rallies – becomes a country apart.