Sitting at a table pretty far from the stage at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner on Saturday night, I watched comedian Michelle Wolf deliver a brilliant, well-timed roast of President Donald Trump, those who work for him and the media establishment that covers him.
The performance has everyone talking, and many are expressing outrage that she “went too far” ― outrage that seems phony and forced. Some journalists who cover the White House and, unsurprisingly, many conservatives and Trump supporters are up in arms about Wolf’s barbs.
In both cases, the reactions are troublingly hypocritical.
The response of many Washington journalists is a particularly bad sign. It shows us some prominent sectors of the fourth estate are acquiescing to the Trump administration ― normalizing it ― rather than taking up the challenge of dealing with an authoritarian presidency.
Frankly, the reactions reek of an attempt to protect access by brown-nosing members of the administration ― but at the cost of legitimizing a president and an administration that has attacked the free press and called just about everyone in it a purveyor of “fake news.”
“Where I was sitting, people were laughing generously in response to many jokes, and, as with any comedian, less so to others.”
Beltway reporters for larger news organizations who’ve been viciously attacked themselves by the most vulgar, insulting, offensive president in U.S. history suddenly seemed shocked ― shocked! ― by what they perceived as vulgarity and insults coming from a female comedian. CNN’s Jeff Zeleny called the roast “not funny,” “cringeworthy” and “one-sided” ― as if a comedic roast of a political figure is supposed to show balance of some kind.
He also tweeted that it was an “embarrassment” for everyone in the room.
That may have been the perception where he was sitting ― near White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House officials who sat on the main table on the stage ― where journalists from CNN and other news organizations who covet access to the White House might have been loathe to be seen laughing and surely might be uncomfortable.
But where I was sitting, people were laughing generously in response to many jokes, and, as with any comedian, less so to others. Wolf entertained many of those around me. And a successful comic doesn’t just make you laugh: She provokes and makes you think, saying things that others won’t say but which need to be stated, whether you like it or not. Whatever the case, nobody looked embarrassed.
Mike Allen of Axios seems scandalized, however, lamenting that Wolf “made several uses of a vulgarity that begins with ‘p,’ in an audience filled with Washington officials, top journalists and a few baseball legends (Brooks Robinson, Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley).”
Are we really to believe that Washington officials and journalists haven’t before heard what some in the White House have referred to as “salty language” (back when Trump made his “shithole countries” remarks), or that baseball legends never heard any “locker room talk,” as the Trump campaign called Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016?
There was also the tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, which started a misleading narrative that Wolf had attacked Sanders’ appearance.
As many have now pointed out, Wolf’s reference to Sanders’s “perfect smokey eye” was actually a compliment on her makeup, yet a dig at her lying: She “burns facts” and uses the “ash” to make a perfect smokey eye. Wolf’s comparison of Sanders to Aunt Lydia from the “The Handmaid’s Tale” wasn’t about her appearance either, but rather a joke about Sanders serving as a strict female enforcer within a misogynistic, authoritarian regime.
Veteran NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell demanded an apology be given to Sanders, whom she said had been “grossly insulted.” This is one of the more blatant examples of the normalization of the Trump presidency by the media establishment.
Mitchell’s expression reflected that of a certain clubby, elite Washington, a place in which insiders view one another as people who have to do their jobs even if they don’t like everything their boss says or does, and therefore should be respected and excused.
But no one has to work for an authoritarian ― not yet ― and especially one who hasn’t himself apologized for having “grossly insulted” gold star families, immigrants, women, black athletes and a slew of other people. Besides, this was a roast, and everything Wolf expressed was true: Sanders defends Trump’s lies for a living, to the point that Politifact has a page of her false statements.
Equally as disingenuous were conservatives who claimed to be offended by Wolf’s comments. American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted that he and his wife, White House aide Mercedes Schlapp, were so offended and angry about “elites mocking us” that they stormed out in anger ― but they later showed up at the decidedly elite NBC after-party at the Art Museum of the Americas.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual political gathering which Schlapp organizes, each year features more vile insults spewed from the stage in one session ― including against the media ― than Wolf could offer up in 20 dinner monologues.
This year NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, just days after the Parkland massacre, said in a speech at CPAC that members of the media “love” school shootings: “Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it. Now I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you.”
Loesch is not a comedian, and she isn’t joking.
And of course, these Trump-supporting conservatives had little problem with either Trump’s attacks on women’s appearances, like Carly Fiorina’s face, or his general vulgarity, insults and incitements to violence.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham called Wolf a “complete disgrace” and harrumphed that “the Left’s intolerance and mean-spiritedness knows no bounds.” But only a month ago she nastily attacked the Parkland high school student and activist David Hogg over his grade-point average, spurring an advertiser boycott of her show.
She also gave Trump advice during the presidential campaign on getting past the “Access Hollywood” tape controversy, and, according to the New York Times, was one of the conservatives whom the Trump campaign asked to “stand by his side” ― and she did.
The hypocrisy of the Trump-backing conservative leaders and pundits is to be expected, and their reactions to Wolf’s roast are not a shock.
Much more disturbing is that the reactions of many in the Beltway media establishment appear to be more in line with these morally-bankrupt individuals than with the vast majority of Americans they are supposed to serve.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter @msignorile.