Telling the truth about politics and the media

Michelle Wolf’s scathing attack on the entire class of people in the political and media world at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner that showcases the incestuous relationships among them continues to produce ripple effects, with some speculating as to whether her performance spells the merciful end of this event. If it does, Wolf deserves our sincere gratitude.

Executives at CBS News were so dismayed by Saturday’s presentation that the network considered ending its participation in future dinners, according to three people who spoke anonymously to describe internal discussions. The network has since eased its position, after receiving assurances that the Correspondents’ Association will seriously consider changes to the dinner’s format.

Still, even as some Washington journalists seethed over what they deemed Ms. Wolf’s over-the-line jokes, others criticized the association for calling her monologue “not in the spirit” of its mission, arguing that a group dedicated to advancing journalism ought to defend a comedian’s right to free speech.

Wolf herself is not backing down one inch. She has a way of delivering strong statements with a friendly and disarming smile that must be disconcerting to her critics.

“I wouldn’t change a single word that I said. I’m very happy with what I said, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns.”

“I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to cater to the room. I wanted to cater to the outside audience, and not betray my brand of comedy,” Wolf told NPR. “A friend of mine who helped me write, he gave me a note before I went on which I kept with me which was, ‘Be true to yourself. Never apologize. Burn it to the ground.'”

Masha Gessen defends Wolf’s performance as a much needed dose of truth that exposed the fiction that sustains mainstream media.

She called the President a racist, a truth as self-evident as it has proved difficult for mainstream journalists to state. Her humor was obscene: she joked about the President’s affair with a porn star; about his “pulling out,” as promised (of the Paris agreement); and about the G.O.P.’s former deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy’s $1.6 million payoff to a former mistress. She also made mincemeat of White House staff, House and Senate Republican leaders, the Democrats, and journalists on the right and left, in their presence or in that of their colleagues.

What makes these dinners possible are fictions about civility and performance. There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance necessary to continue performing their professional roles. There is a fiction that they can laugh at one another and themselves and not take offense, that the divisions among guests are ultimately bridgeable, that all of them inhabit the same reality, and that both the humor and the objects of the humor are innocuous.

The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. In this story, the statement that the President is a racist is still controversial. In this story, the media can discuss his affair with a porn star, and even the question of whether he used a condom, without undermining respect for the office. This is an essential pretense, because respect for the office of the President is indeed a value that should transcend the current Presidency. But it is this pretense, and these fictions, that cast a pall of unreality over most media coverage and make late-night comedy shows the better news outlets. And then there is the pretense that the late-night comedians exist in a parallel universe, separate even from the television channels that broadcast them.

Wolf’s routine burst the bubbles of civility and performance, and of the separation of media and comedy. It plunged the attendees into the reality that is, in the Trump era, the stuff of comedy. Through her obscene humor, Wolf exposed the obscenity of the fictions—and the fundamental unfunniness of it all. Her last line, the most shocking of her entire monologue, bears repeating: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

Matt Taibbi rips the negative media coverage of Wolf for supposedly spoiling this annual love fest.

Afterward, the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Margaret Talev, effusively apologized for her own invitee’s unconscionable decision to say true things in public.

“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility,” Talev wrote. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

Everything that is revolting about the D.C. press corps was on display in this incident. On the one hand, who cares – it’s just a party, right? On the other hand, why are we partying with the people we’re supposed to be covering?

The reason is that a significant portion of the national press corps genuinely gets off on the experience of being close to power. They love going to fancy restaurants and being whispered to by a Senatorial aide or, better yet, an actual Senator. Even more titillating is being handed a packet of secrets by someone at the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon!

“What no one in this room wants to admit is Trump helped all of you,” she went on. “He couldn’t sell steaks, vodka, water, college, ties or Eric. [But] he has helped you sell your papers, books, and TV. You created this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

She went on to remind the crowd that there’s still no clean water in Flint, a not-so-subtle reference to the topics we could be covering instead of the all-Trump, all-the-time format that everyone from Les Moonves of CBS to CNN International chief Tony Maddox has admitted has been great for the bottom line of our business.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has always been an odd concept. It’s strange to me when reporters try to have friends at all, much less ones in the White House. What’s the point?

Taibbi hopes that all the pearl clutching over Wolf’s sharp jabs at politicians and the media will signal the end of this awful love fest. But I doubt it. After Stephen Colbert did a similar savage number at this event in 2006, the following year they invited an utterly innocuous comedian (Rich Little) to speak and no one remembers anything he said. Although Colbert was criticized too, I do not recall the attacks on him being as harsh as on Wolf. Maybe because he was already famous and these people like to kick down, not up. Wolf was relatively unknown and all these big shot people in the room must have been annoyed by someone like her daring to make fun of her betters. (It should be recalled that Larry Wilmore, another relative ‘outsider’ like Wolf, was also criticized for his criticisms of the beltway class in 2016.) Also Colbert was not as free with his use of sexual language as Wolf was, and some people tend to be quite upset at hearing words that any adult knows.

It would be great if next year the association invited Samantha Bee to provide the keynote address. Now that Wolf has softened them up, Bee can deliver the knockout blow. But I doubt that they have the nerve

Stephen Colbert resurrected his old character to comment on Wolf’s performance.

Seth Meyers also came to Wolf’s defense.

As did Trevor Noah.


  1. says

    I saw on Twitter some right-wingers crowing about Noah firing Wolf. They really don’t get humour. The first image I saw said “Trevor Noah fires ex-employee” so they don’t even get language, because how can he fire an ex-employee?

    I’m really looking forward to watching her new Netflix show later this month.

  2. cartomancer says

    I watched the performance. For me, as someone used to the British culture of robust political satire and scathing comedy, her performance seemed rather mild.

    We should send Frankie Boyle over to do it next year, just to see them grind their clutching pearls to dust and break their fainting couches to splinters.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    For speeches afflicting the comfortable and complacent at this sort of function, it’s hard to beat Elizabeth May (leader of Canada’s Green Party) at the Press Gallery Dinner in 2015. She probably was a bit drunk, and, sadly, she apologized afterwards, but I thought it a thing of beauty from beginning to end; the end being when Lisa Raitt basically forced her off the stage.

  4. Dunc says

    I would so watch if it was Frankie Boyle. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

  5. johnson catman says

    Although Colbert was criticized too, I do not recall the attacks on him being as harsh as on Wolf. Maybe because he was already famous and these people like to kick down, not up. Wolf was relatively unknown and all these big shot people in the room must have been annoyed by someone like her daring to make fun of her betters.

    She is a woman. That is reason enough for more criticism than Colbert received.

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