Maybe a second thought is what the White House Correspondents Association should have applied before hiring Michelle Wolf as their entertainment for Saturday’s dinner. They’re having second thoughts now, as CBS This Morning noted this morning. Late last night, WHCA president Margaret Talev publicly acknowledged that critics of the latest edition of the White House Correspondents Dinner have a point:
The White House Correspondents Association says critics of Saturday night's annual gala have a reason to be upset. The group says an edgy monologue by comedian Michelle Wolf was "not in the spirit" of its mission https://t.co/5YAzl7nchP pic.twitter.com/tzcWRnLE7n
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 30, 2018
Talev issued the statement to members, but also to Twitter:
— WHCA (@whca) April 30, 2018
Here’s a fun fact. Wolf’s routine got so raw that even C-SPAN bailed on it:
C-SPAN radio stopped broadcasting her performance more than halfway through Saturday night and replayed an episode of “Washington Journal,” instead. It said it was concerned about the speech’s “compatibility with the FCC’s indecency guidelines.”
Appearing Sunday morning on CNN, where she is also a political analyst, Talev called Wolf “a talented comedian who had a message to deliver, and she did deliver a message.” Her only regret, she said, was that Wolf’s routine was “now defining four hours of what was a really wonderful, unifying night.”
I’m torn on this issue. On one hand, it was a comedy routine, not a stump speech for a campaign. Gross and inappropriate as it was for the declared “spirit” of the event, the people being skewered are big boys and girls, some of whom are none too slow to call their critics “snowflakes” and worse. When Berkeley Breathed coined the word “offensensitivity” in the 1980s, I doubt that he knew just how prophetic he would become.
On the other hand, the whole event tends to repulse me, and that was before Michelle Wolf ever got hired. I don’t watch these dinners on television, because I’ve grown intensely tired of self-congratulatory galas on TV such as the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and the entire cornucopia of entertainment-industry celebrations of celebrity. The annual WHCA dinner ostensibly celebrates journalism and the First Amendment, but it does so in the same way that the Miss America Pageant celebrates feminism and college scholarships. It’s an entertainment industry event that celebrates their entertainment quotient, right down to the red carpet and the self-conscious oohing and aahing over celebrity journalists, and celebrity politicians for that matter.
Shouldn’t the development of celebrity journalists worry us just a bit more than the choice of comic for one event? And what does it say about an industry that they’d reach out to the Comedy Channel for someone to capture their essence?
At The Atlantic, Megan Garber argues that the WHCA has to make a decision on what it wants to celebrate with its dinner. L’affaire Wolf has effectively put an end to eating their cake and having it too, Garber concludes:
If one person can eclipse an entire evening’s worth of celebration—the military show, the scholarships, the awards, the urgent discussion of the profound necessity of press freedom—that’s a good sign that something should change about the evening. There’s the Correspondents’ Dinner as an event, and the Correspondents’ Dinner as a norm; both would benefit, at this point, from scaling back to become something smaller, more intimate, more meaningful—less about celebrity, less about comedy, and more about journalism. A smaller dinner would be more boring, definitely, but also more in line with journalism’s own best vision of itself: as a watchdog, as a safeguard, as an extension of the curiosity of the American people.
The Correspondents’ Dinner, after all, has long been a matter of controversy, an event criticized by press critics both professional and amateur for its tendency to erode, in its flurry of glad-handing and elbow-rubbing, the lines separating journalists from the people they are meant to hold to account. What the critics are acknowledging implicitly is that journalism has expanded in another way since those first White House correspondents gathered in 1921: The press has become, also, the media. CNN anchors and New York Times reporters do their work within a vast system that mingles news and entertainment. They exist in a world in which many journalists, by default—many of the journalists, at least, who gather in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton every April—double as celebrities. It’s time to acknowledge that and proceed accordingly. Power and victimhood, jokes and seriousness, steak and fish: You can have it both ways, until you can’t.
Maybe it’s time to put away the roast, to roll up the red carpet, and to stop aspiring to being the People’s Choice Awards of the East Coast. If that makes for a lower-wattage event, at least it will be one within the “spirit” of celebrating journalism rather than celebrity, and focusing on the First Amendment more than it does on their distaste for Sarah Huckabee Sanders. That’s the real choice that the WHCA has to make, not whether their next comic for their in-joke self-congratulatory gala singes rather than burns.