News & Politics

The Press Response to Michelle Wolf's Comedy Routine Should Frighten Us

Our free press is caging itself at a dangerous time.

Photo Credit: ABC News

On Saturday evening, Michelle Wolf delivered the traditional roast at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. Wolf did what the hired comedian has always done—poke fun at the powerful. But the response to that traditional roast is telling. 

Because it seems clear that the position of the press—or at least a substantial part of it—is that, while it is always acceptable to mock the disabled, disparage immigrants, and condemn the poor, it’s no longer within “polite society” to finger the tie of the people at the top. The press association is so concerned that people not feel offended by a 20-minute comedy routine containing jokes that were actually jokes, that they felt it necessary to issue an official response. 

Dear Members,

I want to tell you how much your kind words meant to me following the personal remarks at last night’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, about the roots of my believe in journalism’s essential role. 

I also have heard from members expressing dismay with the entertainer’s monologue and how it reflects on our mission. … Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press, while honoring civility, great reporting, and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.

Bullshit … is too kind a word. F#$%ing bullshit comes closer, but still doesn’t capture the spirit of “you’re a disgrace to your profession and your stated mission is the opposite of what it should be” that is the “spirit” of this reply to that reply. 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.

It’s hard to sum the attitude of the press better that Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey did here in his defense of Sarah Sanders after she was treated to the horrible, horrible punishment of being the butt of a few jokes.

Okay, she lies constantly. But she’s nice enough to me. And that is what’s important.  After all, she may sneer and demean reporters and generally treat them like a roomful of children, but she doesn’t literally put reporters in a cage—like her boss did.

And it’s not like she’s a young African American woman talking rudely to the media. Because that might be offensive.

But even worse than Dawsey immediately climbing the barricades for Sanders, is this piece from NBC News

The dueling events — Trump's campaign rally in Washington Township, Michigan, and the annual black-tie affair at a hotel in Washington, D.C. — followed last year's pattern when Trump skipped the correspondents' dinner to hold a rally in Pennsylvania.

The entire article is dedicated to waxing lyrical over Trump and Trump supporters, while pearl-clutching about those ivory-tower journalists and their un-American ways.

Rather than the ornate but cramped ballroom of the Washington Hilton, his fans waited in line to get into a hangar-like facility called Total Sports in the other Washington — Washington Township, Michigan.

While the menu at the correspondents' dinner included roasted beet baklava salad and seared monk fish, the Trump rally offered submarine sandwiches — turkey, ham or Italian — a bag of chips and bottled water poured into a styrofoam cup (with no ice).

No ice. Trump supporters do not need ice to scream out their demand that he be given the Nobel Prize for calling a national leader names and making multiple threats to launch a war. While those pampered reporters listened to mean jokes about Dear Leader.

The whole response to Wolf’s routine, and the softball treatment of Trump’s threatening lie-riddled speech, is enough to show that it’s no longer necessary for Donald Trump to cage the press. They’ve caged themselves. And pulled the door closed behind them.

The most powerful line of Wolf's speech, which will inevitably get overshadowed by what she said about Sanders, was this on the media and Trump:

"He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him."

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Mark Sumner is the author of the nonfiction work "The Evolution of Everything" as well as several novels including "Devil's Tower."