Michelle Wolf Isn’t the Problem. The Dinner’s the Problem

By David Mills Published on May 2, 2018

Michelle Wolf’s bad jokes, they were bad. But she’s not the problem. The whole freaking dinner’s the problem. Which, actually, Wolf herself kind of suggested.

Why? Because that gathering of the great and good reveals the nice cozy palsy “we just like to tease” scratch-each-other’s back friendship between people who should not be friends. The country does not need White House reporters who pal around with the White House. Exactly the opposite.

How Funny Was She? She Was So Funny …

To be fair, Michelle Wolf hit a lot of her jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.(Here’s a transcript.) Like this one: “And just a reminder to everyone, I’m here to make jokes. I have no agenda. I’m not trying to get anything accomplished. So everyone that’s here from Congress, you should feel right at home.” 

This one works: “You can’t shut me up as a woman … unless you are Michael Cohen and wire me $130,000.” So does this one: “There’s a lot of print media here. There’s a ton of you guys, but I’m not going to go after print media tonight because it’s illegal to attack an endangered species.”

She made fun of Fox News, but she also made fun of MSNBC and CNN. She made a grim joke about Al Franken and Ted Kennedy, as rough on them as she was on any Republican. She sometimes hit both sides, as with “I had a lot of jokes about Cabinet members, but I had to scrap all of those because everyone has been fired. You guys are going through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”

She’s still a liberal, of course. She made some good jokes even if you don’t agree with her politics. Bruising, most of them, but still clearly jokes.

As a liberal, she teased Rachel Maddow, but she insulted Megyn Kelly. She made a middle school joke about Mitch McConnell’s neck wattles and a crude joke about Paul Ryan’s lack of [courage]. She called Mike Pence a “weirdo.” He was the subject when she made her infamously callous remark about abortion.

Wolf included a “women in this administration” section. In it, she insulted Sarah Sanders and Kellyann Conway, calling both liars. She really beat on Ivanka Trump. 

Most of those jokes weren’t funny, because they weren’t funny. Even if you agree with Wolf’s politics,  this won’t make you laugh: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” I’m still trying to figure out what the joke is there.

— David Mills

From the Right

We can argue this from right or left. I’ll start with the right. In 2014, six years into the Obama reign, a National Review writer called the dinner an “abomination.” Peter Kirsanow laughed at the Republicans for going. “Republicans never seem to get that all of the jokes at the affair are on them,” he wrote.

They look like high-school nerds, so happily amazed to have been invited to the cool kids’ house party that they’re oblivious to the fact that the sole purpose for the invitation is so the cool kids can make fun of them and later dunk their heads in the john.

The press basically worked for the Democrats, he thought. So “why enable the enablers? Why validate their evident bias and corruption?” Look at what the press had done:

The press corps has done the White House’s heavy lifting on burying not just Benghazi, but the IRS scandal, the serial catastrophes of Obamacare, and the various calamities masquerading as a foreign policy — doing little more than acting as brick masons for the Most Transparent Administration in History’s ubiquitous stone walls.

This wasn’t just a problem for Republicans. It’s a problem for American democracy. Kirsanow explained: “To help celebrate the unseemly relationship between the White House and the media … helps erode any remaining confidence people have in the integrity of our political institutions.”

Another NR writer called the dinner “a sort of icon of well-intentioned false bonhomie.” Dan McLaughlin noted that “True believers and populists hated the way it made light of substance and played into the idea that everybody in DC thinks the whole thing is a game.” The dinner widened “the gulf between the DC ‘cool kids’ and the rest of the country.”

And From the Left

Some people on the left think the same way. Rolling Stone biggie Matt Taibbi noted how much of the press itself disowned the talk. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell complained that “the spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn.” He responded:

Like your reporting, you mean? The White House Correspondents’ dinner has always been a bad aristocratic joke, the punch line obvious to everyone but the participants. ‘Make a joke — but not a real one’ has been its unofficial motto since forever.

Taibbi liked Wolf’s performance, because she made people mad. The press’s negative reaction revealed what the dinner’s really about. “It’s designed to be a chummy mutual admiration society.” Why? “A significant portion of the national press corps genuinely gets off on the experience of being close to power. They love going to fancy restaurants and being whispered to by a Senatorial aide or, better yet, an actual Senator.”

Others on the left made the same point. Even the neo-liberal bible The Economist agreed. The magazine doesn’t send anyone. “The American political press already has a bias toward reverence and access preservation; journalists yukking it up with powerful people whom they are supposed to cover impartially is unseemly.”

America Needs  an Adversarial Press

The right thinks the problem is that the liberal press hates conservatism. The left thinks the problem is that the establishment press supports the establishment. The first is true, but the second’s more important.

We need an adversarial press. Whichever party has the presidency, the nation needs reporters who ask themselves, “What are they up to?” Guys who take nothing on trust and keep digging for the real story. Guys who assume the press secretary’s spinning when she says, “The president likes kittens and ice cream.” Hard-nosed, hard-bitten, hard-writing reporters out of the old movies, who assume that a politician is guilty until proven innocent, and really, not even then.

In other words, guys the White House won’t like. Won’t like, whether it’s Republican or Democrat.

Whatever our politics, we need reporters to dig for the truth, to push their way in behind the curtains, to find all the naked emperors. We don’t know what’s really going on there in D.C. A lot of people spend a lot of money to make sure we don’t. Remember Bill Cosby before anyone knew what he really is. You can’t swing a cat in D.C. without hitting someone like him and three people who want to make sure you never find out.

Right or left, we all need reporters to be equal-opportunity skeptics. Of course we don’t trust the other side. But we really can’t trust our own. As Lord Acton so famously said, as I explained here, “Power tends to corrupt.” Our own people get sucked into the thing, whether you’re a conservative who calls it “the swamp” or a leftist who calls it “the power elite.”

The WHCD celebrates the, let me call them “the swamp elite.” They’re saying to the rest of us: “We’re really friends, because we’re the insiders. We run the country our way, for our own purposes. We may fight in public, but only to settle who’s the top insider. Some of us may really hate each other, but that’s the way it is in any family. The important thing is we’re family. And you’re not.”

Down with the dinner. And down with what it symbolizes.

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