Journalists distance themselves from Correspondents’ Dinner after Wolf routine
Comedian Michelle Wolf’s biting routine at Saturday’s 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has triggered one of Washington’s most recurring conversations: Is one night of pomp and politics worth the headaches that usually follow?
Almost immediately after Wolf, best known as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” left the stage at the Washington Hilton, those who pack into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room on a daily basis began to distance themselves from her performance. A number of journalists deemed her act too caustic.
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“The spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn. Reporters who work with her daily appreciate that @presssec was there,” NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O’Donnell wrote on Twitter.
At its core, the dinner is supposed to be a celebration of the First Amendment, an opportunity to laud the young journalists who have won the association’s scholarships, and a place to applaud the current journalists whose work illuminates the public’s understanding of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“My goal in putting together last night’s dinner was to unify the room and the country around journalism and the First Amendment, and I shared what I believe about those subjects in my own remarks,” Margaret Talev, a Bloomberg correspondent and president of the association, told POLITICO.
“The association, by tradition, does not preview or censor the entertainer’s remarks,” Talev continued. “Some of them made me uncomfortable and did not embody the spirit of the night. And that is protected by the First Amendment. I appreciated Sarah Sanders for joining us at the head table and her grace through the program.”
A persistent criticism of the glitzy dinner is that it fuels perceptions of excessive chumminess between members of the press and the government officials they’re expected to hold accountable, a rationale that prompted The New York Times to back out more than a decade ago. But some journalists feared that Saturday’s dinner could lead to a different perception, of being seen as the opposition to the president.
“If the #WHCD dinner did anything tonight, it made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider,” tweeted Meg Kinnard, a South Carolina-based reporter for The Associated Press. “And those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.”
New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker concluded on Twitter after the event, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” And Baker suggested in a reply to comedian Kathy Griffin that he’d “vote to leave the comedy acts to comedy shows and stick to journalism at journalism dinners.”
“First Amendment would probably be OK without the dinner,” CNBC’s John Harwood added.
Controversies emanating from the evening are nothing new.
In 2006, “Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert stayed in character as he scorched President George W. Bush and his administration (along with the press for its coverage during the run-up to the Iraq War). Years later, Colbert said people still ask him what Bush, who was seated just steps away, told him after the routine.
In 2016, comedian Larry Wilmore ended his jokes by saluting President Barack Obama, who was attending his final WHCD in office, with “Yo, Barry, you did it, my n—a. You did it.” After the hand wringing over his use of the N-word, Wilmore defended his decision, saying he was trying to take back a word that had been used to denigrate black men for centuries.
But Saturday was supposed to be different.
In 2017, President Donald Trump became the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the gathering (although Reagan, who was recovering from an assassination attempt, still called in) and not a single Trump White House aide attended. This year, though, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sat at the head table, and counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters beforehand that Trump had encouraged his staff to attend.
“He encourages us to have fun,” Conway told CNN before the festivities began.