Televised awards shows have been in a ratings decline in recent years, but the recent exchange between Meryl Streep and Donald Trump may yet reverse the trend. It had all the elements of the now-familiar Trump dust-up including an extended rant on Twitter but, perhaps more entertainingly, a critique of acting skills from one performer to another and back again.
Even those not locked into the Golden Globes broadcast Sunday night have likely seen by now a video clip of the acclaimed actress who, after receiving a lifetime achievement award, castigated the president-elect for his bullying and especially his mocking impersonation of Serge F. Kovaleski, a disabled reporter. The payoff lines: "This instinct to humiliate when it's modeled by someone in the public ... by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone's life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same."
It was a moving speech — and it moved Mr. Trump, a former reality television performer, to go on the attack, calling Ms. Streep "one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood" and a "Hillary [Clinton] flunky." That the most Oscar-nominated (and most Golden Globe-nominated, incidentally) actress in history is a supporter of Ms. Clinton is absolutely true; the notion she is overrated is a tougher sell to anyone who has actually watched her on-screen performances, however.
We could go on all day about the idiocy of a president-elect investing himself so thoroughly in a Hollywood awards show — let alone demonstrating just how gossamer-thin, if curiously-hued, his skin has become — but there's actually a more important point that ought not slip by. Part of Ms. Streep's speech was a call to action not only to the Hollywood community but to the press to hold our elected leaders accountable and call out their prevarications.
This might seem a routine instruction in any other context — the Fourth Estate being, well, the Fourth Estate — but if Mr. Trump has succeeded in anything, it's in convincing his supporters to hate the press and to equate legitimate journalism with the ham-handed, often nakedly partisan "fake news" spewed across social media by modern propagandists. Dishonesty has seldom had a more powerful ally than the incoming president and his team.
Take, for example, the very episode to which Ms. Streep alluded. Mr. Trump has denied that he intended to mock Mr. Kovaleski, but the moment caught on tape tells quite a different story. "You gotta see this guy," is what Mr. Trump is heard saying. And while the billionaire has used similar mocking tones in other contexts, this particular hand-flapping version was truly abhorrent given the circumstances.
And, by the way, the whole episode regarding the reporter arose because Mr. Trump had claimed falsely that thousands of U.S. Muslims had celebrated the 9/11 attack and, in the process, misrepresented Mr. Kovaleski's reporting. So, in essence, it's been a basket of deplorable behavior — lies upon lies and the mocking of someone with a disability. Nobody should need Meryl Streep to convince them that the next president shouldn't get a free pass for that kind of behavior.
Still, one can't help but get a sinking feeling that paying so much attention to late-night Twitter rants and speeches by award-winning actresses, no matter how impassioned or well-reasoned, is a distraction from the less entertaining, if potentially more vital, machinations of the incoming administration and its Republican allies in Congress. A Google search of "Trump Streep" returned 1.8 million hits as of midday Monday while using the search term "Secretary of State Rex Tillerson" got 1.75 million. One of those subjects may be all the talk around the water cooler at the office today, but the other, a wealthy former oil industry executive with close ties to Vladimir Putin, is poised to set the nation's future direction in foreign policy.
That makes it the obligation of the press not only to hold the powerful accountable — and to stand up for the powerless, when necessary — but to do so proportionately. That doesn't mean ignoring Mr. Trump's Twitter rants and other moments of infantilism but to give greater priority to events of greater weight and consequence. The president-elect's serial dishonesty can't be ignored, but decisions that could be far more disastrous must be reserved for the brightest spotlight of all.