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How Do You Speak Politely to Evil? Michelle Wolf’s Challenge to Corporate Journalists

Mainstream journalism’s cushioned world of denial got punctured.

Comedian Michelle Wolf entertains guests at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC, on Saturday, April 28, 2018.

The cushioned world of denial within which some corporate journalists live, at this time of national crisis, was best reflected by Bloomberg senior White House reporter Margaret Talev’s telling CNN that she “regretted” that Michelle Wolf’s now-infamous remarks at the April 28 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner “are now defining four hours of what was a really wonderful, unifying night. And I don’t want the cause of unity to be undercut.”

Think for a moment about that statement.

A major national journalist believes that “a unifying night” is possible at a gala in which a free press mingles with members of a historically unprecedented American pre-fascist regime that demonizes and blackballs truthful reporters, tells flagrant lies with breathtaking and ferocious regularity, eagerly dooms human life on Earth by embracing fossil-fuel falsehoods for the sake of a few decades of profits, rationalizes murders by white supremacists as being equivalent to the nonviolent protests of anti-racists, fills this administration with outrageous liars and spouse abusers and defiantly corrupt industry cronies, defies the Constitutional Emoluments Clause’s prohibition of personal financial gain from the presidency and defiles the moral body of the presidency with Trump’s profane hatred and contempt toward women.

Bloomberg’s Talev apparently believes that conscientious journalists can make peace with these obscenities for at least one nationally televised evening in the spirit of a long-standing Washington media tradition. So, it appears, do venerable NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell (who called for Wolf to apologize for her remarks) and The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker.

These social niceties between the press and the (often ruffled and angered) political figures they write about are, perhaps, fair enough in what pass for “normal times” in modern capitalism.

But normal has been burned to ash since November 2016, and many corporate journalists are among the last to know. This is not a new problem; in fact, it’s a structural one. Part of the widely accepted job description for a corporate journalist today is to take for granted thoroughly bogus assumptions about society: Democracy requires capitalism, elections require major private financers of campaigns, and so on.

But now, the societal cost of journalists’ fantasizing about an eternally self-correcting capitalist democracy has exploded beyond past norms. We are now looking down the barrel of a potential police state. This is not an alarmist opinion. This is a fact-based observation. Trump is not a normal capitalist politician. He is a wickedly gifted demagogue when it comes to primal vengefulness. He has contempt for due process. His screaming entreaties to mobs of bitter white people are ramping up the kinds of fear, rage and obedience that can ultimately motivate them to shoot “enemies of the people” on sight.

On the same night as the correspondents’ dinner where Wolf made headlines, Trump traveled to 95 percent white Washington Township, Michigan, where he whipped up more embittered venom. He told the audience that media elites “hate your guts.” He knows what he is doing. He is an ignoramus, but he is brutally skilled at appealing to humanity’s basest fears and worst urges.

So this year’s correspondents’ dinner required far more than a normal speaker. Wolf understood this, and she delivered.

Many other Americans also understand it. Look at the virulent pushback to Andrea Mitchell’s Twitter feed after she called for Wolf to apologize. As one tweeter replied to Mitchell, “After everything this administration has said and done to the American people with no apology? Are you fucking kidding me???? This has to be a joke.”

There is a spectacular disconnect between today’s corporate journalists and the lived experience of observant Americans who understand that today’s national political realities cannot in any way be accepted as compatible with an alleged democracy.

Trump’s current spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who succeeded serial liar Sean Spicer and was deservedly the target of some of Wolf’s fiercest lines — is yet another expendable fabricator who will last as long as her sense of self-preservation permits. All of those in her predicament must eventually answer one unforgiving question: How do you measure present career expediency against future disgrace?

But that is a problem for Sanders, who, like other mercenaries, will do her own stone-cold calculus.

The question for corporate journalists at this time of societal crisis is: How many will continue to simply chronicle the quotes and count the bodies, and how many will commit to the deeper and more dangerous mission of defeating power-grabbing liars and defending the pursuit of democracy?

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