“The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah crushed it as host of Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. It was a speech that perfectly roasted those in attendance and in the news, but also closed with a robust reminder of the important role a free press plays in our society and democracy.
Noah took aim at everyone — the right, the left and the media — in the first WHCA dinner since 2019. He even poked fun at the fact that this year’s event might have been (should have been?) postponed because of COVID-19, saying, “It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event. For real, what are we doing here? Did none of you learn anything from the Gridiron dinner? Like, do you read any of your own newspapers? I mean, I expect this from Sean Hannity, but the rest of you, what are you doing here? You guys spent the last two years telling everyone the importance of wearing masks and avoiding large indoor gatherings. And the second someone offers you a free dinner you all turn into Joe Rogan. (Dr. Anthony) Fauci dropped out. That should have been a pretty big sign. Fauci thought it was too dangerous to come tonight. Pete Davidson thinks it’s OK. And we all went with Pete.”
Around 2,000 people attended Saturday’s dinner and now we’ll all hold our breath and hope it doesn’t turn into a superspreader.
Back to Noah. If you missed it, click here for his full remarks. But here are some of his better lines:
- “I know a lot of you are worried and, yes, it is risky making jokes these days. We all saw what happened at the Oscars. I’ve actually been a bit worried about tonight, I won’t lie. What if I make a really mean joke about Kellyanne Conway and her husband rushes up on the stage and thanks me?”
- “What I like about Ron DeSantis is if Trump was the original Terminator, DeSantis is like the T-1000. You’re smarter than him. You’re slicker than him. You can walk down ramps. Trump said he won the election, but everyone was able to look at the numbers and see that he was wrong. That’s why Ron DeSantis is one step ahead. First you ban the math textbooks, then nobody knows how to count the votes.”
- “Think of all the journalists whose careers have been hurt by the Biden presidency. People like Daniel Dale. He used to be CNN’s fact-checker on TV every day but now there’s barely anything to check. Same for Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post. On the way here, I saw him offering four Pinocchios for a dollar. Mr. President, that’s on you. What about Maggie Haberman? For four years, it was exclusives. … Now look at her. She spends all day fighting with random people on Twitter like a common political reporter.”
- “Fox News is sort of like a Waffle House. It’s relatively normal in the afternoon, but as soon as the sun goes down, there’s a drunk lady named Jeanine threatening to fight every Mexican who comes in.”
- “They spent $300 million on CNN+. Three hundred million. Can I be honest, CNN? I think Stanley Tucci was playing you guys. I think that dude knew exactly where Italy was and he was just going to keep searching as long as you were paying.”
But it was Noah’s closing remarks — serious and powerful — that made a lasting impression. While Noah poked fun at everyone, he closed with a not-so-subtle reminder of how fortunate we are to live in the country we do, where the media plays a critical role in our democracy.
Noah said, “So as we sit in this room tonight, I really hope we all remember what the real purpose of this evening is. Yes, it’s fun. Yes, we dress nice. Yes, the people eat, they drink, we have fun. But the reason we are here is to honor and celebrate the Fourth Estate and what you stand for — an additional check and balance that holds power to account. And gives voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one.”
Noah continued, “I’m not just talking about like CNN or Fox or any of the other major organizations. I’m talking about everyone.”
Noah said he was talking about local journalism in places such as Flint, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa, and El Paso, Texas.
“Every single one of you, whether you like it or not, is a bastion of democracy,” Noah said. “And if you ever begin to doubt your responsibilities — how meaningful it is — look no further than what’s happening in Ukraine. Journalists are risking and even losing their lives to show the world what’s really happening.”
Then Noah said, “You realize how amazing it is. In America, you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth even if it makes people in power uncomfortable. Even if it makes your viewers or your readers uncomfortable. You understand how amazing that is? I stood here tonight and I made fun of the president of the United States and I’m going to be fine. … Do you really understand what a blessing it is? Maybe it’s happened for so long, it might slip your mind. It’s a blessing.”
He then closed by saying, “Ask yourself this question. If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods and their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing — if they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories, or to ask any questions, if they had basically what you have, would they be using it in the same that you do? Ask yourself that question every day because you have one of the most important roles in the world.”
The best of Biden
Noah wasn’t the only one cracking jokes on Saturday night. President Joe Biden had a few, too, including this opening jab for the media: “I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have.”
Some of Biden’s other good lines:
- “Folks, I’m not really here to roast the GOP. That’s not my style. Besides, there’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.”
- “Republicans seem to support one fella: Some guy named Brandon. He’s having a really good year, and I’m kind of happy for him.”
He also closed with serious remarks about the importance of a free press.
Biden said, “The free press is not the enemy of the people — far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth. President Kennedy once said, and I quote, ‘Without debate, without criticism, no administration, no country can succeed, and no republic can survive.’ The First Amendment grants a free press extraordinary protection, but with it comes, as many of you know, a very heavy obligation: to seek the truth as best you can — not to inflame or entertain, but to illuminate and educate. I know it’s tough. And I’m not being solicitous. The industry is changing significantly. There’s incredible pressure on you all to deliver heat instead of shed light, because the technology is changing so much, the system is changing. But it matters. No kidding. It matters. The truth matters. American democracy is not a reality show. It’s not a reality show. It’s reality itself. And the reality is that we are a great country.”
The New York Times and Tucker Carlson
Over the weekend, The New York Times and investigative reporter Nicholas Confessore put out a stunningly detailed and deeply-reported three-part series on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The three parts were:
- “How Tucker Carlson Stoked White Fear to Conquer Cable.”
- “How Tucker Carlson Reshaped Fox News — and Became Trump’s Heir.”
- “Look Inside the Apocalyptic Worldview of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’”
Confessore writes, “… Mr. Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news — and also, by some measures, the most successful.”
Others agree with the assessment. Speaking on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, media analyst David Zurawik, the former longtime media critic at The Baltimore Sun, said, “He’s right up there. No one has ever had the kind of audience that he has and has preached the kind of racism he preaches. I would say that’s absolutely certain.”
Zurawik also added this: “You can’t separate Tucker Carlson from (Fox News founder and boss) Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch allows this stuff to go out over his airways.”
The Times analyzed 1,150 episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and Confessore tweeted that the story was “based on interviews with dozens of current and former Fox employees, Carlson’s friends and former colleagues, and an array of public records.”
Confessore writes, “Mr. Carlson has led the network’s on-air transformation, becoming Fox’s most influential employee. Outside Fox, Mr. Carlson is bandied about as a potential candidate for president. Inside the network, he answers solely to the Murdochs themselves. With seeming impunity, Mr. Carlson has used his broadcast to attack Fox’s own news coverage, helping drive some journalists off the air and others, like the veteran Fox anchor Shepard Smith, to leave the network entirely. In Australia, the editors of some Murdoch-owned newspapers watch Mr. Carlson’s show religiously, believing it provides clues to Mr. Murdoch’s own views. According to former senior Fox employees, Mr. Carlson boasts of rarely speaking with Fox’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, but talking or texting regularly with Mr. Murdoch. And in an extraordinary departure from the old Fox code, Mr. Carlson is exempt from the network’s fearsome media relations department, which under Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder, served to both defend the channel’s image and keep its talent in line.”
Confessore adds, “Mr. Carlson is powerful at Fox not merely because he is the network’s face but because he is also its future — a star whose intensity and paranoid style work to bind viewers more closely to the Fox brand, helping lead them through the fragmented post-cable landscape.”
It’s nearly impossible to recap the entire three-part series here, but read this compelling work. Confessore also has six takeaways from his series called “What to Know About Tucker Carlson’s Rise.”
Out of fairness, despite the ridiculousness of it, here’s what Justin Wells, a senior executive producer overseeing Carlson’s show, told the Times: “Tucker Carlson programming embraces diversity of thought and presents various points of view in an industry where contrarian thought and the search for truth are often ignored. Stories in ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ broadcasts and ‘Tucker Carlson Originals’ documentaries undergo a rigorous editorial process. We’re also proud of our ongoing original reporting at a time when most in the media amplify only one point of view.”
Carlson, who declined to be interviewed for the Times series, told Axios’ Mike Allen that he “of course won’t” read the Times series. On Sunday, Carlson tweeted a photo of himself smiling widely (laughing?) while holding up a front of the Times, where the story about him was prominently displayed. There were no words in Carlson’s tweet.
Speaking of no words, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans tweeted, “Laughing at a story that says he hosts the most racist show in (mainstream) cable news history. I have no words.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, replied, “He’s proud of it.”
Notable journalism from Russia-Ukraine
- On Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” correspondent Scott Pelley reported from Odesa, Ukraine.
- For Politico Magazine, Zoya Sheftalovich with “The Mysterious Case of Marina O.”
- The Washington Post’s Sammy Westfall and William Neff with “How the ‘jack-in-the-box’ flaw dooms some Russian tanks.”
- Also in the Post, Joseph Menn with “Hacking Russia was off-limits. The Ukraine war made it a free-for-all.”
- For The New York Times, Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko with “Russian Tycoon Criticized Putin’s War. Retribution Was Swift.”
- Also in the Times, Jane Arraf, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Maria Varenikova with “Long lines at Ukrainian gas stations reveal just the tip of a looming crisis.”
- The Wall Street Journal’s Warren P. Strobel and Robert Wall with “Ukraine War Puts Spy Satellites for Hire in the Spotlight.”
- Los Angeles Times’ Washington columnist Doyle McManus with “Can the U.S. deter Putin from using his arsenal of battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine?”
The secret of ‘Dateline’
For the first time since the pandemic, the four correspondents of NBC’s “Dateline” — Andrea Canning, Josh Mankiewicz, Dennis Murphy and Keith Morrison — were together in the same place on Saturday. They gathered for a panel at CrimeCon in Las Vegas. NBC News business and tech correspondent (and “Dateline” fan) Jo Ling Kent moderated “Dateline 24/7: What’s Next for the True Crime Original.”
So what’s the secret to a show that has been on since 1992?
Mankiewicz said, “A couple of things. One right here (points to the audience), this is one of the reasons we are so successful. Second, is all the people on ‘Dateline’ that you don’t see, the people behind the camera, the camera crews, the producers, the associate producers, and our executives who essentially function as our editors.”
Murphy added, “The building block from me from the earliest days of ‘Dateline,’ which I used to say is — these stories are about the marriage, not the murder.”
The panel also showed the trailer for the upcoming Peacock series called “Dateline: The Last Day.” The show examines the last day of the victim.
Canning said, “It was like looking at it through a different lens because we do break down, hour by hour, what the person was doing that day. … So it’s just an interesting way to look at a similar ‘Dateline’ but in a different way, so I found it very fascinating working on this series. … It is what the detectives do, they are going through the timeline and that last day is the most crucial day of that person’s life.”
- The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Sarah Ellison with “How a billionaires boys’ club came to dominate the public square.”
- The Washington Post editorial board with “Barack Obama’s smart way to change the disinformation debate.”
- Roxanna Scott has been named executive editor and vice president for USA Today Sports. Scott had held the title of managing editor for sports. Her new jobs give her a more expansive role coordinating coverage with the USA Today Network. USA Today’s Bailey Schulz has more.
- ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt gives a touching and sweet tribute to his dog, Otis. Have the Kleenex ready.
- The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch is reporting that Fox Sports and former NFL and college coach Urban Meyer are in “deep negotiations” for Meyer to return to the network. After a successful college coaching career, including national championship stops at Florida and Ohio State, Meyer resigned from Ohio State and worked as a studio analyst on Fox’s college coverage. He then became the head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars last year, but was fired before the season ended after several controversies and a 2-11 record. Deitsch wrote, “The thinking at Fox Sports, via network sources, is that they don’t view Meyer’s failure at the NFL level as an impediment to his returning to Fox. They know that the hire will be pilloried on social media.”
- Politico’s Bryan Bender with “The Night Kennedy and Nixon Were Bunkmates.”
- This is from last week, but still a good listen. For her “Sway” podcast, The New York Times’ Kara Swisher talks with journalists Casey Newton, Anand Giridharadas and William Cohan for “Is Elon Musk About to Become the ‘King of Nothing?’”
- Nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. with “Who are these Christians who loathe their neighbor while they love themselves?”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Time for a new job? Your future employer is looking for you on The Media Job Board — Powered by Poynter, Editor & Publisher and America’s Newspapers. Search now!
- Teachapalooza: Front-Edge Teaching Tools for College Educators (In-person or Online Seminar) — June 10-12, Apply now.
- Summit for Reporters & Editors (Seminar) July 7-23 — Apply by June 17.
The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, sign up here.