Three reasons why the White House Correspondents Dinner was a disaster

Comedian Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Corespondents Dinner (CSPAN)

Comedian Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Corespondents Dinner (CSPAN)

Since it appears to be federal law that we all have opinions about Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents Dinner, here is mine: The event was a disaster.

Of course, Donald Trump has his own reasons for calling it “a total disaster” — he’s trying to destroy the free and independent press, as authoritarian wannabees are wont to do; he’s growing more terrified with each passing day of being held accountable by Robert Mueller and even Michael Cohen — but I like my reasons way better:

The annual dinner itself is ridiculous. It’s an insular Beltway bloat-a-thon festooned with B-list celebrities, a nerd Oscars show where overdressed newspeople shamelessly suck up to the newsmakers. Journalists are supposed to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” to quote the 19th century writer Finley Peter Dunne, but every year, this dinner undercuts the credo. Anyone beyond the Beltway who channel-surfs to C-Span sees an insular meeting of the Washington establishment elite.

And those optics are especially bad now, because they play directly into Trump’s hands. It’s counterproductive to feed the demagogue. As Peter Baker of The New York Times tweeted after the Saturday night dinner (which neither he, nor The Times, attended), “I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism.” Which brings us to point #2:

The dinner featured Michelle Wolf. I have no problem with edgy comedians who traffic in “blue” material, and yeah, I know that Wolf’s rude profane routine wasn’t nearly as heinous as the bilge Trump disgorged during his Michigan rant-rally, and yeah, I know that she spoke “truth to power.” But if the White House Correspondents Association wasn’t so tin-eared, it would’ve realized that Wolf’s act would polarize the audience in the room and the greater public. All that did was detract from the event’s intended serious message.

I agree with ex-Bush speechwriter and conservative commentator Michael Gerson, who hates Trump, but rightly warns that the liberals’ arguments defending Wolf “are precisely the reason Trump could win a second term. If this is the tone, style and substance of the progressive critique of the president, he will mop the floor with them.”

On Sunday I happened to meet an ex-nun, a nice lady who’d caught Wolf’s act on TV because she was interested in the dinner. It was clear she didn’t remember anything about the so-called purpose of the dinner, which was to promote the First Amendment and hail the great work that Trump fears so much. All she remembered — and complained to me about — was Wolf’s vulgar language. Which merely confirmed my belief that while Wolf is indeed talented, this event was the wrong place and time for her talents. Didn’t the organizers know what they were getting when they hired her?

Which brings to point #3:

The organizers made things worse by apologizing. First they hired Wolf (surely because she was edgy), then they sucked up to the Trump regime by throwing Wolf under the bus (alas, because she was edgy). On Sunday, association president Margaret Talev said the Washington journalists had hoped to “offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.” They believed in “civility.” They had not intended “to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of the mission.”

So in the end, the White House Correspondents Association wound up begging forgiveness from the same people (most notably, Sarah Huckabee Sanders) who lie to them every day, the same people who are bent on wrecking their profession. As if those people would ever reciprocate in the spirit of born-again civility.

Here’s a wild and crazy idea. Since there’s no way the WHCA would ever lose the dinner, why not redesign it from scratch? Frankly, as I wrote a year ago, “They should dump the jokes, downplay the celebrities, and sharpen their core message about a free press (and) the quaint notion that verifiable facts are superior to marketed lies.” These dire times require a radical change in format.

Ban the celebrities, nix the guest comedian. Devote the entire dinner to the great work being done here and abroad; honor at length the journalists who die in the service of their craft (like the nine killed yesterday in Kabul); celebrate the ambitious efforts currently being made to reinvigorate local investigative reporting; skip the snark and hire serious speakers who can calmly articulate — for interested viewers like the ex-nun — the crucial role of a free press as a bulwark against the rising tide of despotism in the western world.

Any chance this will happen?

Or, failing that, can the White House correspondents at least agree to pepper Sarah Sanders daily with the questions being readied by Robert Mueller? (One of my favorites: “What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?”)

Would that be too much to ask?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.