On April 28, the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) took place, albeit without the resident of its namesake domicile. As has been traditional for more than three decades, a comedian performed a “roast” of various figures across the political landscape. This year, Michelle Wolf, former contributor and writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and star of the upcoming Netflix show The Break with Michelle Wolf, delivered a scathing criticism of Washington, D.C., and its politicians. Her speech touched on political themes from Republican criticism of the media to the various investigations into potential misconduct with the Russian government.
“It’s 2018 and I’m a woman, so you cannot shut me up,” the 32-year-old comedian said. “Unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.” All in all, the subject matter itself was the same as usual. The response from reporters and White House officials, however, was surprisingly harsh.
After the event was over, criticism poured in from every direction. CNN White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny called the dinner “an embarrassment in the room and surely to the audience at home.” Peter Baker, MSNBC analyst and chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” Even Sean Spicer, who left the Trump Administration after an embarrassingly incompetent stretch as White House press secretary, tweeted, “Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace.”
The criticism leveled at Wolf was mostly because of her allegedly sexist targeting of the Trump Administration’s female members, especially Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway (whatever her job is). Wolf’s most-scrutinized joke picked at Sanders’ false statements to the press: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.”
White House Strategic Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp chose that “deplorable moment” to get up and walk out of the ballroom, later saying that Wolf “went after [Sanders’] looks.” Besides the fact that Wolf never actually insulted Sanders appearance (which, by the way, would not have been out of the ordinary for a WHCD), it’s an undeniable truth that Sanders has preached lie after lie to the White House press corps, and Wolf calling her out is not only expected for this particular event, but also commendable.
After this Twitter-fueled uproar erupted about Wolf’s routine, White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev released an official statement saying that “the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission [to offer a unifying message about a commitment to the free press].” I find it extremely disappointing that Talev, who said in her opening remarks that “an attack on any journalist is an attack on us all,” feigned surprise that a comedian she had hired to roast the anti-free-press president had, in fact, roasted the anti-free-press president. What did she expect?
The reaction to Wolf’s performance would suggest that her jokes were especially crude or distasteful compared to past years, but other Correspondents’ Dinners have been just as vicious. The most infamous performance before this one came from Stephen Colbert in 2006. With President George W. Bush’s approval ratings tanking and the media under public scrutiny for their coverage of his administration, Colbert laid into his targets. “I stand by [President Bush] because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares,” Colbert said, with Bush’s handling of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina fresh on Americans’ minds. Despite his biting jokes, YouTube clips of his remarks went viral, taking up the top three most popular videos the next day. A recording of his speech was a top iTunes Store download for the next five months.
So, the big question that I assume you’re asking here is as follows: Why, if this was a perfectly normal performance for the WHCD, was there such an outrage? The answer lies not in the source of the jokes, but in their butt. There was something unsettling about hearing Wolf jest about things like Russian collusion, sexual assault, and water quality in Flint, Michigan. But that’s not because Wolf’s jokes were distasteful, but because the subject matter itself is alarming.
It’s hard, as all of these shenanigans circle around us in the media and a new scandal pops up every day, to remember that this administration is not normal. These reporters should have been able to realize this underlying solemnity, and Schlapp, who works for an accused sexual harasser, should have been ridiculed for her hypocrisy.
Were all of Wolf’s jokes funny? Absolutely not, but at least she didn’t pull her punches. In fact, she did just the opposite: she provided a necessary reminder that in abnormal times, it is crucial that we continue to criticize that which deserves criticism, regardless of how uneasy that makes us feel.