The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) is taking heat the day after comedian Michelle Wolf took shots from the stage at presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A number of observers in attendance felt the former “Daily Show” comedian went over the line with her jokes, which drew heavy conservative fire on Sunday.
White House national security adviser John Bolton slammed the event in an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” saying he was happy not to attend.
“Just reprehensible behavior by someone addressing the gathering, and sadly it’s par for the course in Washington today,” Bolton said.
Fox News reporter Ed Henry called on WHCA to apologize to Sanders.
Other high-profile journalists also criticized the event, and the president of the group that organizes the dinner distanced herself from the material, though she did not offer an apology.
Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, told Politico that some of Wolf’s jokes made her “uncomfortable.”
“I appreciated Sarah Sanders for joining us at the head table and her grace through the program,” Talev said.
Talev said she went over to Sanders shortly after Wolf’s routine.
“I told her that I knew this was a big decision whether or not to attend the dinner and whether to sit at the head table and that I really appreciated her being there, that I thought it sent an important decision about the role government and the press being able to work together,” Talev said.
“Michelle Wolf is a comedian and she speaks for herself, and that is her right to do that under the free speech and the First Amendment, which we were celebrating,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources.”
The association, according to Talev, does not preview or censor the entertainer’s remarks.
“I think the comedian reflects on the press corps but I don’t think the comedian speaks for the press corps,” she said. “The press corps speaks for itself.”
Later on Sunday, Talev released a stronger statement acknowledging the “dismay” from certain members over Wolf’s comments and how they diverged from the organization’s mission to “offer a unifying message” about upholding free speech “while honoring civility.”
“Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” Wolf said.
Spirit of the mission? What Michelle Wolf did was to call out the attendees of the WHCD for being in league with Trump, and they responded by joining ranks with Trump Republicans in chastising her.
The job of a free press is neither to honor civility nor to unite people. It is to uphold the truth, force the powerful to confront their transgressions, and be a complete pain in the ass to those who would rather they stayed quiet.
The job of a comedian, especially one hired to deliver a satirical roast, it not just to make people laugh, but to do so in a way that challenges easy assumptions and leaves them feeling uncomfortable. The laughter at such an event should always be uneasy. Because it should come with a fair share of acknowledging painful truths and admitting to things that the listeners would very much like to ignore. One of the people in Washington, D.C. did her job very well on Saturday night. How well she did it, can be precisely measured by the level of seat-squirming “outrage” she generated.
All the same, countless journalists rallied behind Sanders, the same woman who spends her days lying to them. And that says a lot more about them than it does about Wolf’s routine. Everyone who told Wolf to read the room is missing the point: The room, and the misplaced notion of a “special” night to celebrate the “special” relationship between the press and the presidency that brought everyone to it on Saturday, is precisely the problem.
That Wolf’s performance was not “normal” for the correspondents’ dinner is a testament to its timeliness and necessity — nothing is “normal” right now, and pretending otherwise out of a false sense of the fourth estate’s friendship with the executive would have been the real disgrace. Wolf called the Trump administration out for tearing down democracy. Then, the people who are supposed to care most about holding autocrats to account called her out in turn for, essentially, not being chummy enough.
That persistent chumminess is why Wolf’s performance, in the end, wasn’t really for the press. It was about us. “You guys love breaking news, and you did it,” Wolf said to CNN. “You broke it.” To everyone else, she said: “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.” Instead of listening — to that or to Wolf’s final line, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” — we got grumpy on Twitter. Which means Wolf did a better job of defending the First Amendment than those who say that’s our business.