Since Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the daily Internet Rage Cycle has been fixated on the host — comedian and former The Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf — and whether or not she went too far with her jokes about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and the media itself. Never mind that the annual event operates like a roast, meaning that the president (who is usually in attendance, though Trump has skipped it the last two years) and all of the celebrities and media luminaries in the audience are subject to harsh, blistering critiques from the host (usually a comedian) in the form of jokes. But pundits and viewers on all points of the political spectrum are clutching their pearls in shock — shock! — after Wolf’s 20-minute monologue, specifically this joke about Sanders:
“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. [She] burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
On Monday, Wolf — who defended her act on Twitter the day after the WHCD — continued to stand by her material in an interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. “I wouldn’t change a single word that I said. I’m very happy with what I said, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns,” she told Gross, adding that if people thought that comparing Sanders to “Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale” was a comment on the press secretary’s looks, “they didn’t pay attention to what was said.” (For the record, the exact joke was, “I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.”) Wolf added, “[The] two people that I actually made fun of their looks on Saturday [were] Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie, and no one is jumping to their defense.”
As a member of the media myself, I will admit I’m ashamed of the other journalists criticizing Wolf — especially since it seems clear that the reason they found her act so offensive is because Wolf called the media out for their complicity in helping to create the vitriolic, divisive, and wholly unproductive political divide in this country. A divide that not only thrives on highlighting the worst instincts and characteristics of both political parties, it keeps the citizens of this country (myself included, I’m ashamed to say) too focused on disliking the “other” instead of trying to make America a better place. Rather than jokes about Sanders’s “smokey eye” or trapping Conway under a tree falling in the forest, it was Wolf’s comments about the media that caused such a virulent backlash…from the media:
“There’s a ton of news right now, a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. But instead we’re covering, like, three topics: Every hour it’s Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel of four people that remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving… You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend that you hate him but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him. And if you’re gonna profit off of Trump you should at least give him some money because he doesn’t have any… Flint still doesn’t have clean water!”
Those last six words — “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” — help underscore all of Wolf’s points. Four years later, people in that Michigan city are still afraid to drink from the tap, but it’s very unlikely viewers would see Flint as the top story on the news. The media in attendance at Saturday’s event were so offended by Wolf’s speech, meanwhile, the White House Correspondents’ Association felt the need to issue an apology to its members on Twitter, saying the comedian’s monologue “was not in the spirit” of their mission to promote “a vigorous and free press, while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners.” Well, folks, a big part of great reporting is listening — and if something doesn’t ring true, track down the facts. But when it does, ladies and gentlemen of the media, don’t have a tantrum. Instead, learn and do better.