The Washington Times tries to follow the dots in the blowback from Saturday night:
The journalism biz had ink on its face after comedian Michelle Wolf’s hard-to-watch attack on Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but there was no apology forthcoming from the organizer.
Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, refused Sunday to second-guess her speaker selection after Ms. Wolf reamed the White House press secretary for “lies” and took veiled shots at her appearance.
“What I told you is what I have already told Sarah Sanders, that I speak for myself and the association, and that my interest is in the spirit of unity and in the spirit of serious journalism,” said Ms. Talev on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
Did Ms. Wolf’s anti-Sanders screed promote unity? Maybe not, acknowledged Ms. Talev.
“My interest overwhelmingly was in unifying the country, and I understand that we may have fallen a little bit short on that goal,” said Ms. Talev, Bloomberg’s senior White House reporter. “I hope everyone will allow us to continue to work toward that goal.”
On Sunday evening, Ms. Talev issued a statement that again stopped short of an apology, saying that the program was intended to “offer a unifying message” and not “to divide people.”
“Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” she said.
Ms. Talev added that she and the next WHCA president, Olivier Knox, were “committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward.”
Her comments appeared jarringly out of touch with the reaction to Ms. Wolf’s routine from conservatives, administration officials and even leading journalists, who spent Sunday evaluating the damage done to the industry at Saturday’s televised dinner.
Howard Kurtz, host of Fox’s “Media Buzz,” said Sunday he had “never seen a performance like that,” adding that “she was not only nasty but she was dropping f-bombs on live television.”
The comedian herself, a contributor to “The Daily Show,” was unrepentant, insisting her Sanders jokes were “about her despicable behavior,” not her looks.
“The question now is whether comedian Michelle Wolf went too far and maybe damaged the journalism profession,” said CNN host Brian Stelter.
A number of prominent media figures — including Ed Henry of Fox News, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Mika Brzezinski, and the [U.K.] Guardian’s David Martosko — called for the WHCA to apologize.
“I think it’s long past time, hours later, for the association to put out a simple, one-sentence statement saying, ‘We do not agree with this,’ these personal, vile attacks on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is a good person,” said Mr. Henry on “Media Buzz.”
The former WHCA president added, “We invited her to the dinner, we should have treated her with respect.”
The Associated Press’s Meg Kinnard tweeted that the dinner “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider.”
Margaret Sullivan, columnist for The Washington Post, upped the ante by calling on journalists to cancel the dinner entirely in a Sunday op-ed headlined, “For the sake of journalism, stop the annual schmoozefest.”
She argued that the dinner “plays right into the hands of President Trump’s press-bashing,” a sentiment echoed by Jonah Goldberg, who said the event has become “an East Coast version of the Oscars.”
“As someone who has dinged President Trump often for his narcissism, the institutional narcissism that was on display last night from the correspondents’ dinner I think was a gift to President Trump,” said Mr. Goldberg on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “The crudeness toward Sarah Huckabee Sanders was a gift to the White House.”
The president seconded the sentiment personally on Sunday night, tweeting the event was “an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed.”
“Put Dinner to rest, or start over!” Mr. Trump concluded.
The outrage over Ms. Wolf’s routine comes with the public’s trust in the press at what may be an all-time low amid Mr. Trump’s ongoing feud with the media.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last month found that 22 percent of those surveyed agreed that the press was the “enemy of the people,” as Mr. Trump has said, a figure that jumped to 51 percent among Republicans.
“We’ve had awkward dinners before, no question, but this is a different time,” said USA Today’s Susan Page on “Face the Nation.”
A composed but unsmiling Mrs. Sanders watched from the dais a few feet away as Ms. Wolf let loose on her and a number of other administration officials, although her anti-Sanders jabs came across as the most offensive.
“I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it cousin Huckabee? Is it anti-Huckabee Sanders?” asked Ms. Wolf. “What’s ‘Uncle Tom’ but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know, Aunt [Ann] Coulter.”
At one point she told Mrs. Sanders that “I love you as aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ” referring to the frumpy, scowling older woman who indoctrinates the handmaids in the Hulu series.
“I actually really like Sarah, I think she’s really resourceful. Like she burns facts and then uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” said Ms. Wolf. “Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.”
The episode may well have set back press relations with the White House. While Mr. Trump pointedly was not there, headlining a rally instead in Michigan, several administration officials did attend, breaking last year’s boycott.
Not everyone in the press corps was on the same page. A number of White House reporters defended Ms. Wolf’s routine, saying critics were making too much of it.
“I think the White House Correspondents’ Association is taking sort of undue blame for this,” said Politico correspondent Eliana Johnson on “Reliable Sources.” “The country is polarized, and the dinner I think showcases that.”
Comedian Don Imus drew outrage over his skewering of President Bill Clinton at the 1996 dinner. Ten years later, Stephen Colbert delivered a searing roasting of President George W. Bush.
Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, was among those who called the outrage ironic, given Mr. Trump’s putdowns and vulgarities, adding that “the press’s problems of legitimacy with the public goes back decades.”
“To think something like this dinner encapsulates or represents the problem, I don’t think it’s quite true,” said Mr. Bouie on “Face the Nation.” “I agree with Jonah’s criticisms of the spectacle of it all, but this problem of press legitimacy goes back a long time.”
The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips takes a sort-of different stance:
Was she a bully or speaking truth to power? Did the Trump administration and journalists on the receiving end of her caustic jokes get what they deserve, or did she take it too far?
Everyone agrees on one thing: Inviting comedian Michelle Wolf to address journalists and politicians in Washington, D.C., on Saturday at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner did not go as planned.
The controversy around the most hyped annual event in Washington isn’t just a Washington problem: It touches on the role of the media in covering politicians, how much people like you trust the media and whether the Trump administration deserves stronger-than-usual criticism.
Here are three arguments and counterpoints about Wolf’s performance that touch on all that:
1. She gave Washington what it deserves: Americans have low opinions of Congress, of the media and of the president. It’s why “drain the swamp” was one of President’s Trump’s more memorable campaign lines. So when the creatures of Washington got dressed up, had some drinks and invited a comedian to entertain them, why were they surprised when that person opened her mouth and spit fire at everyone?
“Trump is racist, though.”
“Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay.”
“He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”
But is journalism really a laughing matter right now? Journalists are under attack. The president has called journalists “the enemy of the American people,” frequently derides Pulitzer Prize-winning news organizations as fake, and has even tweeted cartoons of him tackling CNN. Outside the United States, at least nine journalists were killed on Monday in Afghanistan, targeted for doing their jobs. Politicians, love them or hate them, face dangers too.
2. She gave Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway what they deserve: If you’re one of the 70 percent of Democrats who would vote for a candidate who wants to impeach Trump, you probably thought Wolf’s jokes about pinning senior White House adviser Conway under a tree (“I’m not suggesting she gets hurt; just stuck”) or White House press secretary Huckabee Sanders being “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” (i.e. a sellout for women’s rights) were spot on.
But she gave Washington journalists the unhelpful perception that they are out to get Trump: The vast majority of the journalists who attend this dinner are committed to doing their jobs: attempting to hold power accountable. And yet there we were (yes, I was at the dinner) being entertained by a comedian who flat-out insulted power in some very cheap-shot ways. Meanwhile, Trump was in Michigan addressing “real” America. It was a huge PR win for the president when it comes to his war on the media and on Washington.
3. She proved why this dinner is a mess: The cocktails. The schmoozing. The coziness. Fairly or not, the White House correspondents’ dinner has the reputation of epitomizing all that’s wrong with Washington. Maybe journalists needed Wolf’s controversial performance to finally get them to realize that.
But … Actually I don’t have a good counterpoint for the dinner being a mess: The dinner’s purpose is to protect and celebrate the First Amendment and to invite politicians and celebrities to join in on that cause. That’s worthy. But journalists are kidding ourselves if we think hosting comedians to make fun of an increasingly serious state of affairs accomplishes that.
Here’s a guide to how to think about this: What if this had happened in reverse when Obama was president? Would you have been OK with that?
The Post’s Callum Borchers has an ironic observation:
Stephen Colbert insulted George W. Bush’s intelligence in 2006. Joel McHale mocked Nancy Pelosi’s face in 2014. Conan O’Brien called Pat Buchanan racist in 1995. Cecily Strong suggested Joe Biden is a groper in 2015.
Jokes at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner have often been edgy, cutting and personal, but Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine on Saturday has triggered uncommon regret among journalists. Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, went so far as to tell fellow reporters that she and incoming president Olivier Knox “are committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward” — an indication that the traditional roast of Washington political figures could be scrapped in the future.
Humor is subjective, so it is impossible to say definitively whether Wolf was harsher than her predecessors. What’s clear, however, is that the current occupant of the White House is more inclined than his predecessors to weaponize any remarks that might effectively cast the media as hostile and biased. …
Other recent presidents never missed the event and never lashed out in such fashion, however sharp the barbs. …
In a strange way, Trump, who has coarsened political rhetoric, has actually raised the bar of civility for the media. Journalists now have to consider that the kinds of comedic burns that previous administrations simply absorbed, albeit grudgingly, will be used to discredit the work of the press.
In short, the White House correspondents’ dinner can’t get away with what it once did.
Colbert’s act 12 years ago, for example, was a prolonged, sarcastic takedown of Bush.
“It’s my privilege to celebrate this president,” Colbert said. “We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista.”
Bush did not appear to be amused, and neither were many journalists. In The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen wrote that “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude.”
Rudeness is one accusation leveled against Wolf. Some reporters have objected to her skewering of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whom Wolf unflatteringly compared to the character Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Sanders “burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf also quipped.
But reporters have expressed an additional worry, based not on principle but on possible fallout — that Wolf’s wisecracks reinforced Trump’s characterization of the media as his “opposition party.”
Meg Kinnard, an Associated Press reporter based in South Carolina, tweeted that the event “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us even wider.” She added that “those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.” …
Kinnard’s concern is well-founded. All presidents complain about the media, to some degree, but Trump has made whipping up his base’s suspicion of the press a pillar of his career in politics.
Starker than any difference between Wolf and other comedians who performed at the White House correspondents’ dinner is the difference between previous presidents’ stoicism and Trump’s strategic decision to use the dinner as an anti-media talking point.
The fact is that this is an event that should not be taking place, regardless of who the president is. Media schmoozing up to people in power, described by the Post’s Eugene Scott thusly …
… the dinner is one part of a weekend filled with elaborate galas, parties and brunches, where journalists laugh and drink with the lawmakers and others that the public expects them to cover objectively. When partisans who regularly appear on cable news shows voraciously attacking the integrity of their political opponents are then seen socializing with the journalists who cover them, some Americans lose trust in the mainstream media.
… is precisely why people’s trust in the media is dropping and should be dropping, whether “power” has an R or D or no partisan label. As I wrote last week, if people in the media want a friend, they should get a dog.
As for as Trump’s being anti-media, read this space tomorrow.