The late, great Christopher Hitchens famously jibed at Wanda Sykes, host of President Barack Obama’s first White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) in 2009: “The president should be squirming in his seat. Not smiling,” he said. “The black dyke got it wrong. No one told her the rules.” Hitchens was referring to the fact that Sykes spent her speech targeting conservatives, notably Rush Limbaugh, instead of roasting the president.
Four years and four WHCD’s later, it is apparent that Hitchens was wrong and Sykes was right. No one told him the new rules–that the correspondents’ dinner would henceforth be a setup for the president to mock his opposition, with the host and journalists playing the role of a Greek chorus. In cliché fashion, Obama went after Limbaugh from the outset, and O’Brien saved most of his venom for Republican, sparing the president.
Even Obama’s supposedly self-deprecating jokes were, as usual, self-promoting, harping on his greatness or delivering disguised attacks on his opponents. The president uses self-mockery, such as it is, largely to show that he can, not to offer the rare and necessary acknowledgement of a personal or political flaw. And the press, with few exceptions, laughs right along, participating in what has become a charade of mutual ribbing.
The attendees call the WHCD “Nerd Prom,” which is also meant to sound self-deprecating but is not. To call the journalists in attendance “nerds” is to elevate them to an intellectual status they do not deserve. They do not study the facts, they do not care about the details, and when they finally complain, it is over frivolities like golf. They are “nerds” only in the sense that they allow themselves to be bullied by the biggest kid in school.
There are many reasons the WHCD is in poor taste–the lavish setting amidst economic stagnation, the self-praise of a fourth estate largely loathed by the public. But the worst thing about the WHCD is not what it is, but what it has become in the age of Obama: a weapon against conservatives. When the president likens an opponent to a Nazi and the press yuks it up, it is clear that our political elite are not only one-sided but disturbed.
The participation of Republicans and conservatives in this spectacle, where they are now disproportionately trashed, only highlights how short-sighted we remain about the media and how they work. I’m picking on Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who was perhaps mere being polite, but her description of the WHCD on CNN the morning after as an “incredible celebration of free speech” is an insult to the spirit of the First Amendment.
Free speech and freedom of the press are not measured by how eagerly and ably the media reflect the president’s agenda, ideology and prejudices. They are measured by whether journalists stand up for the truth. By that standard, the media are failing, and have failed throughout Obama’s career. The transformation of the WHCD into an annual laugh at Limbaugh’s expense shows how weak free speech is in the age of Obama.
The “black dyke” got it right because she understood her audience. Unlike Hitchens, who carried with him some of the robust, independent spirit of writers in his native Britain, Sykes understood that many in the American media seek not to record but to govern. She knew that with the arrival of a new, media-savvy president in the White House, the “rules,” as such, had changed–for good, though certainly not for the better.