A Washington press corps dinner lauds free speech — or did it?
Editorial note: A shorter, word-length-appropriate version of this opinion column was submitted to the Washington Post. It was rejected. Every outlet always and should always have the right to accept or reject material according to their own editorial standards. Yet under the circumstances, with the subject at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner being the First Amendment and with Washington being at the very center of a dispute between the media and President Trump, it would seem a column addressing the subject with fresh, newsworthy comments from three prominent conservatives — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and The American Spectator’s own R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. — would be newsworthy. The Post disagreed. Which — my own editorial comment here — should highlight yet again just why the rise of conservative media and why President Trump gets applauded at rallies by so many Americans who, like the President, believe the mainstream media to be “dishonest” in its coverage.
The banner was hard to miss.
Hanging high above the head table of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, underneath the name of the group was this line in all caps:
CELEBRATING THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Not to be an impolite guest (I was present courtesy of CNN) but the question that I had when I saw this banner was: Really?
In the course of the evening Watergate’s journalistic heroes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spoke, with Woodward saying “Mr. President, the media is not fake news.” Bernstein made a point of saying that what was always needed was “The best obtainable version of the truth,” adding “Yes, follow the money, but follow, also, the lies.” This latter theme was also that of the WHCA President Jeff Mason of Reuters, who said this in addressing the absent President Trump directly: “We are not fake news, we are not failing news organizations and we are not the enemy of the American people.”
Meanwhile a 100 miles north in Harrisburg, President Trump was speaking to an arena-full of Americans who cheered him on when he attacked the “incompetent, dishonest” media and said: “If the media’s job is to be honest and to tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade.”
What caused me to question the message on that banner, and understand instantly why the President’s audience cheered him on when he attacked the media, was the absence of two words from anyone on the podium. Those two words: Ann Coulter.
For the better part of a couple weeks Coulter, the conservative columnist, author, and Trump supporter, had been at the very center of a drama that went right to the heart of the First Amendment. Invited to speak at the University of California at Berkeley, she was unable to do so because of the very real threat of violence from the American Left. Let me say that again. An American columnist was denied her First Amendment rights with threats to her physical safety (and that of anyone considering attending her speech) — and there was not word one about this from Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein or Mason.
How could such an obvious omission happen? To this conservative the reason was clear. What was on display all evening was not support for the First Amendment but rather support for liberals and their use of the First Amendment.
I decided to ask three prominent conservatives — all of whom have had their First Amendment rights targeted over the years — whether they have received support from the White House Correspondents Association when they were under attack.
Rush Limbaugh responded to my question as follows:
Of course not. Clinton called me a racist for defending Janet Reno after she was criticized by John Conyers. “Rush only defended her because she was being attacked by a black guy.” I was at the USA Today table. There was a huge reaction in the whole room. Disbelief and shock. Some embarrassed laughter, mostly groans. Chris Matthews approached me at the end of the dinner and said I could not let that stand, the president of the United States calling you a racist cannot stand.
He (Clinton) also agreed that I was a Big Fat Idiot while honoring Franken’s book.
Sean Hannity’s response was equally blunt:
1) Not one liberal. Not one speaks vs the weapon of Boycotts used vs conservatives to silence them. I call it Liberal Fascism. An organized and well funded effort to silence political opposition.
2) The media ran with a CHEAP HEADLINE last Saturday and Sunday about me after a false charge was made by a woman who has a nearly 15 year history of telling proven lies about me. 2 days after O’Reilly fired, she says for the first time ever that in 2003 that I invited her to a hotel room in Detroit.
You would think the media would do just a simple, basic, rudimentary, fundamental GOOGLE SEARCH and not run with such a slanderous headline.
3) Has anyone in the media ever spoken out about the payments being made to individuals to monitor EVERY SINGLE CONSERVATIVE radio and TV host in the hopes the hosts say something that can be used to boycott and silence them? Do they care to examine where these funds come from?
4) Has any liberal ever stood up for any conservative that’s been silenced on a college campus?? How many liberals spoke out for Coulter?
I also made the query to the founding editor of The American Spectator, where I am a columnist. Long before I began writing for the Spectator, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. and the Spectator were engaged in numerous investigations of then-President Clinton. One dealt with the President’s relationships with various women. (It was the Spectator which first brought to light the relationship between then-Governor Clinton and a state employee named “Paula” — later revealed as Paula Jones.) The other Spectator investigation dealt with assorted charges made about Clinton political dealings in Arkansas. The latter resulted in a recommendation from then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that The American Spectator itself be investigated by a special prosecutor, an investigation that lasted fourteen months and was a considerable expense in legal fees for a political magazine. There was, Tyrrell tells me, not a word from the White House Correspondents Association defending the Spectator’s First Amendment rights.
What are these three conservatives saying? In short — and they are not alone in the conservative world — there is a real belief that support for the First Amendment is situational with liberals — and with the White House Correspondents ‘Association. (Or am I repeating myself?)
Whether it is Ann Coulter at Berkeley or left-wing efforts to get Limbaugh and Hannity off the air or the use of the Department of Justice to investigate The American Spectator — or countless incidents on college campuses across the country — in each and every case and so many more it seems to be liberals communicating to conservatives that what they really believe is “the First Amendment for me — but not for thee.”
Following the WHCA dinner, the group’s president, Mr. Mason, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show to discuss the dinner. The conversation, in part, included this:
Turning to the ideology of the press, Carlson cited a study published by Politico, which revealed that no registered Republicans were part of the White House press corps.
“If you had a White House press corps that was 100 percent middle-aged white men,” Carlson told Mason, “there would be a full-blown outcry about the lack of diversity and I bet you $100 you would weigh in and say, ‘You’re right, this doesn’t look like America.’
“Do you think it’s OK that there are zero registered Republicans in the White House press corps?” the host asked.
“I think what’s important is that we have a press corps that’s made up of journalists who report the truth and who robustly report on the president of the United States,” Mason answered.
Carlson wrapped up the discussion by asking Mason, “Is political diversity important to you?”
“Is diversity important? Of course,” Mason said. “Is it my job to talk about what journalists in the White House press corps do? Yes. What they do is report the news regardless of what political party controls the White House.
“I wish I believed that,” Carlson answered. “I don’t.”
That Saturday night at the Washington Hilton I too heard nothing to abuse conservatives of that view. To borrow from my CNN colleague Carl Bernstein, when it comes to the “best obtainable version of the truth” on liberal support for the First Amendment, for conservatives that support seems far too often to be situational at best.
Which in turn makes it easy to understand exactly why President Trump’s attacks on the media received cheers at that rally in Harrisburg.