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Wasdworth: White House Correspondents’ Dinner has lost its way
Our credibility is far too important to compromise over a 20-minute abdication of the high road and a few cheap laughs
Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner and roast has drawn mixed reactions from members of the media. Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA TODAY Network and publisher of USA TODAY, sent this letter Monday to Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association:
I am writing in the interest of starting a constructive dialogue about this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and how we might move forward. Of course, Michelle Wolf’s monologue has been the source of heated debate in the past 48 hours — among pundits and average citizens alike. Much of that chatter has centered on misguided political rhetoric. The issues before us are not about politics at all.
Before diving in, let me start by saying that I thought your remarks Saturday evening about our shared journalistic values were spot on. Like you, I am a daughter of immigrants, and it is that life experience that informs my commitment to protecting our democracy through journalistic excellence. Your words were poignant and inspiring. And I thank you for that.
Because we care so deeply about the important work of journalism, we must all together work to elevate it. We must always hold ourselves to higher standards so that we may continue to do the important work of holding power to account. Our work should foster rigorous debate about the important issues facing our nation. We should confront controversy with a commitment to providing illumination and engendering a deeper understanding.
I realize that this is not the first time a speaker at the dinner has sparked controversy. We, however, should not be the controversy.
Some have said that showcasing Michelle Wolf is a celebration of the First Amendment. It is true that we are committed champions of free speech and all the vital freedoms afforded us by the First Amendment. But that’s too simplistic in this context, isn’t it? In truth, Ms. Wolf represents one point of view, and it is her right to share it. But should we in the press be the ones to give her the stage? Is it appropriate that we invite a celebrity to launch a relentless, and often vulgar, attack on the very people we cover? As if we can go back the next day to don our cloak of impartiality and all is well?
Our ethical code as journalists demands better of us. Therein lies my deeply held conviction that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has lost its way. This evening is meant to be a celebration of journalism and the First Amendment. And in keeping with that tradition, on Saturday some very important and impactful journalism was honored. Student journalists were celebrated.
What followed was not reflective of our highest ideals as journalists. It served only to undermine our credibility. It amplified a growing, dangerous narrative that the news media are biased and unworthy of the public’s trust. Our families, yours and mine, know personally how vital a free press is to protecting our democracy. And so, we must be unwavering in our commitment to safeguard our credibility and journalistic integrity.
The USA TODAY Network remains a strong supporter of the important work of the WHCA. We have many members, including past presidents Susan Page and David Jackson. We look forward to joining you in a discussion about how we can restore the important mission of the association and the role this dinner plays in furthering that mission each year.
To be clear: The tenor and format of the event must change. I know you agree our credibility is far too important to compromise over a 20-minute abdication of the high road and a few cheap laughs.
Thank you for your thoughtfulness and consideration. I look forward to speaking with you at your earliest convenience.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth