The stupid people in my line of work

Washington, it is said, is Hollywood for ugly people. (Those who watch Netflix’s “House of Cards” may have noted the lack of really handsome actors.) And on the vertical spectrum of coolness journalists are on the bottom,

And with that context (we’ll get to “wrongheaded” presently), James Freeman reports on Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was missing a prominent guest, Donald Trump:

At a black-tie dinner on Saturday night, Beltway media folk celebrated their adversarial relationship with President Donald Trump. The night was ostensibly a celebration of an independent press and the First Amendment. But event speakers gave the impression that America’s independent press has actually chosen a side.

Writing in the Washington Post, Monica Hesse sets the scene:

The White House Correspondents’ Association punched back this weekend against an administration that has denigrated it, attempted to discredit it and, ultimately, snubbed it by becoming the first administration in decades to skip out on the annual bread-breaking between the White House and the reporters who cover the presidency.

“We cannot ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do,” association president Jeff Mason told a ballroom of journalists attending the correspondents’ dinner on Saturday night. “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”

But sometimes fake news is in the last place you look, and the Post thought perhaps it had discovered some at the very event dedicated to denying its existence among the mainstream press. Ms. Hesse’s Washington Post colleague Emily Heil reports on the evening’s speech delivered by “Daily Show” fake news reporter Hasan Minhaj:

Minhaj implied his hosts told him not to roast Trump. “I was explicitly told not to go after the administration,” he said after launching his first jab at the president, looking over at White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason with a look of exaggerated apology. (An item in Saturday’s New York Post hinted at a similar embargo, citing “a source who saw the comic” at a Manhattan gig, claiming organizers had declared POTUS off-limits, “because Trump is so thin-skinned.”)

Mason disputes that — and even tried fact-checking the comedian during his act. “You were not told that,” Mason can be heard saying, with a wry smile, as Minhaj claimed he’d been gagged.

Mason told us on Sunday that he was confused by the bit, since he “absolutely” never instructed Minhaj to steer clear of Trump. The two did talk about the theme of the evening, he said, which was to honor the work of the White House press corp and the importance of the first amendment. “I had said all along that I wasn’t looking for someone to roast the president in absentia,” Mason says.

That last comment could perhaps be construed as a request not to attack the President, so maybe fake news is sometimes in the eye of the consumer. In any case, Mr. Minhaj didn’t appear to be pulling any punches. Dave Itzkoff writes in the New York Times about the comedian’s tough love for the assembled media:

“We’re living in this strange time where trust is more important than truth,” Mr. Minhaj said in his performance at the Washington Hilton Hotel. “And supporters of President Trump trust him. And I know journalists, you guys are definitely trying to do good work. I just think that a lot of people don’t trust you right now. And can you blame them?”

A lot of people might have become even less inclined to trust the media upon hearing members of the crowd laughing at Mr. Minhaj’s comments about certain Trump administration officials—though Michael Grynbaum of the New York Times correctly notes that not everyone was laughing:

Wary of looking biased, many prominent journalists in the ballroom kept a poker face during Mr. Minhaj’s nastier punch lines. (He called Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, a “Nazi” and labeled the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a racist, moments quickly featured on Breitbart News and other right-wing news websites.)

So were the prominent journalists simply wary of “looking biased,” or did they sincerely believe the attacks were unfair? Mr. Grynbaum’s reporting suggests it was the former:

… as reporters fanned out to after-parties, they described the night as a needed tonic to the celebrity-soaked atmosphere of recent correspondents’ dinners and the national climate of hostility toward the news media.

Blake Hounshell, the editor of Politico Magazine, wrote on Twitter, “The WHCD may have lost some glitz tonight, but recovered its self-respect.”

Over at the Washington Post, Ms. Heil says that the Minhaj performance “generally got a collective thumbs-up.” She adds:

Following the dinner, the comic got a warm welcome at the swanky NBC/MSNBC after-party. There were “tons of compliments” for the Comedy Central funnyman, says one partyer who spied the Minhaj looking relieved and relaxed as he mingled and chatted in a corner with MSNBC President Phil Griffin.

Perhaps there’s a hosting gig at MSNBC in Mr. Minhaj’s future, as he joked during his performance. And as for the correspondents who hosted Saturday’s event, the headline in Mr. Grynbaum’s story sums it up: “For Journalists, Annual Dinner Serves Up Catharsis and Resolve.” Having seen what they were serving up, Mr. Trump would be wise to skip next year’s event too.

What about “wrongheaded”? For that, let’s go to Freeman’s colleague Holman W. Jenkins Jr.:

As team Trump digs into taxing, spending and health-care reform, it’s learning a vital lesson of Washington. Once a government benefit is given, it can never be taken away. If young people have been overcharged by ObamaCare so middle-aged people can be undercharged, then the solution is to undercharge young people too. The taxpayer—usually visualized as a hedge fund manager—can always pay more.

Ditto the budget as a whole. The Washington Post moans that the White House’s new spending plan would “eliminate the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness across 19 federal agencies,” including providing funding for “Meals on Wheels, a national nonprofit group that delivers food to homebound seniors.”

Never mind that Meals on Wheels is not a federal program. Funding comes from private donations and state and local governments, sometimes using small parts of federal block grants.

The Post further moans that the Trump budget “guts federal funding for affordable housing and kicks the financial responsibility of those programs to states and local governments.”

Never mind that the federal government doesn’t have access to resources the states and localities don’t. Its tax base is their tax base. If housing subsidies are a local priority, let local leaders raise and spend the money locally. They are likely to do a better job addressing a local problem than Washington is.

Such considerations are logical but go unmentioned in the rush to suggest any cut in spending is unendurable. Budget debates are conducted in terms of sob stories: What? You’re not in favor of meals for the elderly? You’re not in favor of export loans for small manufacturers? You don’t think our fighting men and women deserve the best equipment and training money can buy?

Try it yourself. It’s all sob stories, never a discussion of costs and benefits.

The second shoe fell with the Trump tax plan this week, though it was the same shoe as far as the media was concerned. “Trump’s Plan Shifts Trillions to Wealthiest,” went the New York Times headline.

Shifts? The plan doesn’t raise taxes on anybody, except the affluent and businesses by ending certain deductions, and does so partly to pay for lower rates for the affluent and businesses. There is no taking from the poor to give to the rich. Our income tax is almost exclusively a tax of the affluent and business. Working-class Americans are taxed through payroll taxes, which fall far short, even so, of covering their expected future benefits.

As long as the basic structure of American taxes remains intact, the rich would be postponing future tax payments—hopefully fattened by faster growth rather than higher tax rates—to give themselves a tax cut now. As any who are not completely blinded by partisanship will admit, the Trumpian goal here is to bring the economy back to a speedier long-term growth rate. Even the New York Times acknowledges as much, in the 17th paragraph.

There may be much to regret in President Trump’s temperament, his nonmastery of detail, his estrangement from the facts. Not without utility, though, is his generalized disdain for the major media, the most reflexively anti-reform institution in American life. Both major parties look like hotbeds of freethinking in comparison.

The media are a major factor in the outcomes we get. Large spending commitments are willed into being without willing the tax revenues or economic growth to pay for them. Social Security and Medicare are in a $70 trillion hole. Unfunded pension and health-care liabilities of the states and localities are at least $2 trillion. Federal debt has doubled to $20 trillion in less than 10 years. GDP growth has fallen by half. In our next recession, annual deficits could quickly surge to $1 trillion.

Our comeuppance lies in a less and less distant future. But today we get only the horror of any proposed budget cut. We get the intolerability of any entitlement reform—and will continue to get such reporting right up to the day when it all unravels. Any cut in the nominal tax rate for affluent taxpayers is an attack on the poor even if this claim has no relation to the logic of how our tax system actually works.

Entitlements won’t entitle: Medicare will pay for an operation only at a price no doctor will accept. Programmed into law already is a 29% across-the-board cut to Social Security when its trust fund runs out in 12 years.

Then, in the other great twitch of American journalism, will come the blame-laying. The finger will be pointed at everybody but the press itself for wringing out of our politicians any inclination they might have mustered to meet our challenges head-on.

They’re wrong not because they’re being mean to Trump (that’s like the Iran-Iraq war or a Bears–Vikings or Cubs–Cardinals game). They’re wrong because they’re wrong about government and economics.

And by the way, the people pulling their shoulders out of joint patting themselves on the back Saturday are those written about by Becket Adams for this idiocy:

It’s not what Bret Stephens said. It’s where he said it.

That’s the chief takeaway from the press’ collective freak-out this weekend over conservative columnist Bret Stephens’ debut article at the New York Times.

Stephens, who came to the Times after nearly 20 years with the Wall Street Journal, suggested in an op-ed concerning the fierce political debate surrounding climate change that, “if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

“[O]rdinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power,” he added.

Despite that he was careful to note he doesn’t “deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences,” the article left many reporters and pundits in a state of disbelief.

Vox.com’s David Roberts said Monday in a bluntly titled response article, “The New York Times should not have hired climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens.”

David Sirota, of the International Business Times added elsewhere, “False equivalence is a newspaper hiring a climate change denier in the name of manufacturing an artificial image of balance.”

Others declared proudly on social media that they had cancelled their subscriptions.

The reactions, though not entirely surprising, are amusing considering who Stephens is, and what he has done with himself for the last decade.

It’s important to remember he is not some random blogger the Times plucked from obscurity and handed a massive megaphone. Stephens, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, spent 16 years at the Wall Street Journal, one of the largest, best known and most circulated newspapers in the United States. He spent the latter portion of his career with the Journal penning opinion articles, many of which dealt directly with the issue of climate change.

His positions are not new, his ideas not out of the blue and he is not unused to having a major platform from which to air them.

The meltdown is more about reporters being upset that a premium media brand has stained its reputation with a conservative voice than it is about the paper giving foolish people space to write (Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman still have columns, after all).

The anger over Stephens’ article is about the Times’ prestige, not the spread of supposedly dangerous ideas. It’s not as if the Times is unused to giving space in its opinion section to controversial materials or authors. Just last month, the paper’s opinion section published an article by an honest-to-God convicted terrorist. A few days later, it published an op-ed by Vivian Gornick that amounted to little more than a love letter to the now-defunct Communist Party in the United States.

Journalists’ social dynamics often resemble those found in a typical high school, where raging hormones and emerging adult identities fuel an ongoing obsession with status and placement in a pecking order.

In high school, students tend to be hyper-conscious of their social standing. As such, they work hard to avoid even the appearance of association with someone who is other. Every high schooler has his eye on being seen as one of the cool kids, and there’s no surer way of achieving this end than to gain admission into the most popular clique.

With Stephens writing for the Times, reporters seem less concerned with what he says – indeed he has been saying this sort of stuff for awhile – and more upset that the Times, which is considered the most prestigious of media cliques, allows him the space to say it.

It’s not what Stephens said. It’s that he said it while sitting with the most popular clique at lunch.

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