After the annual mutual congratulation session known as the White House Correspondents' Dinner concluded Saturday, NBC News White House reporter Kelly O'Donnell distanced herself from the program. O'Donnell thought Daily Show comedienne Michelle Wolf had been too rough on Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
"The spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don't burn," O'Donnell wrote.
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.
That is exactly what was said, for instance, in 1996, when shock jock Don Imus made his infamous appearance at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ dinner. Somehow reporters were surprised when Imus said the same things in front of Bill and Hillary Clinton he'd been saying on the radio for years, making jokes about Whitewater and Bill's womanizing rep, among other things. The D.C. press was horrified.
"Now none of us can go on [Imus's] show again," complained Cokie Roberts.
"We wanted some discomfort, but not that much," said ABC's Jackie Judd, one of that event's organizers, perfectly predicting future sentiments about Wolf.
The Imus incident really should have been the last correspondents' ball of any kind, as it revealed the basic nature of the proceeding. It's designed to be a chummy mutual admiration society, in which pols and pundits dressed in black tie stroke each other to the edge of ecstasy over champagne and filet mignon.
A comic is often invited. The humorist's job is to make an anodyne joke or two about the first family before rapidly sitting down and shutting the %$^k up (a curtsey is optional).
After this "roast," the president is supposed to get up and take a free shot at one or two or six of the administration's most hated journos, before quickly retreating into a state of feigned respect for the weasel-audience.
It's a repulsive scene, and only ever becomes interesting when someone forgets to tell the comic to leave the gloves on, as with Wolf.
The consensus among media pros seems to be that Wolf went too far with a routine that began, "Like a porn star says when she's about to have sex with a Trump, let's get this over with."
The line most-often cited as being the most offensive was this one, aimed at Sanders: "I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye…"
It seems this was a makeup joke, and too mean for poor Sanders – who of course spends her days non-answering questions directed by this same White House "press" toward the Trump White House.
Rather than be offended by that, the press took offense on Sanders' behalf. O'Donnell's NBC colleague Andrea Mitchell tweeted a typical reaction:
"Apology is owed to @PressSec and others grossly insulted ny [sic] Michelle Wolf at White House Correspondents Assoc dinner which started with uplifting heartfelt speech by @margarettalev - comedian was worst since Imus insulted Clinton's [sic]"
Apparently Mitchell is still scarred by that 1996 experience of having to watch a comedian make a mean joke to the face of a sitting president, and not be executed on the spot.
Of course, there was no chance of that this year, as the current president does not attend the correspondents' ball – not for any good reason, of course, but because he can't take a joke and also is preemptively bitter that he won't be slobbered over by the audience as was the custom with, say, Barack Obama.
That didn't mean Wolf let Trump off the hook. On the contrary, she ripped him from start to finish, to the early delight of the crowd.
"You can't shut me up as a woman ... unless you are Michael Cohen and wire me $130,000," she joked. "You can find me on Venmo under my porn star name, Reince Priebus."
But the crowd of reporters turned silent when Wolf started in on them, noting that we in the media could be covering a lot of things, but instead only cover "like three topics":
"Every hour it's Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel of four people who remind you why you don't go home for Thanksgiving," she quipped.
The laughs here slowed to a kind of half-laughing, half-grumbling sound that Steve Martin would have called "just a general murmur."
"You guys are obsessed with Trump," Wolf went on, smiling. "Did you use to date him? You pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him."
Murmur, murmur, murmur!
"What no one in this room wants to admit is Trump helped all of you," she went on. "He couldn't sell steaks, vodka, water, college, ties or Eric. [But] he has helped you sell your papers, books, and TV. You created this monster, and now you're profiting off of him."
She went on to remind the crowd that there's still no clean water in Flint, a not-so-subtle reference to the topics we could be covering instead of the all-Trump, all-the-time format that everyone from Les Moonves of CBS to CNN International chief Tony Maddox has admitted has been great for the bottom line of our business.
Afterward, the head of the White House Correspondents' Association, Margaret Talev, effusively apologized for her own invitee's unconscionable decision to say true things in public.
"Last night's program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility," Talev wrote. "Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."
Everything that is revolting about the D.C. press corps was on display in this incident. On the one hand, who cares – it's just a party, right? On the other hand, why are we partying with the people we're supposed to be covering?
The reason is that 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. Even more titillating is being handed a packet of secrets by someone at the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon!
This is why so many journalists circle the wagons when someone dares to interrupt their public love sessions with the people who misuse our tax money, bomb innocent civilians, lie to us, give get-out-of-jail free cards to white collar criminals, etc.
We're supposed to recoil from them, as from scorpions, but instead we host dinners for them, beg for photo ops, and defend them from even the most remotely pointed barbs. It's gross.
The 1999 Overseas Press Club awards, in which famous journos ripped then-Pacifica reporters Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman for disrupting the ceremony to ask a question about Kosovo of keynote speaker and Clinton Yugoslavia envoy Richard Holbrooke, was a classic example of the wagon-circling phenomenon.
Wolf's take on the press relationship to Trump, of course, was dead-on. The press affects to hate Trump, and on an individual level some reporters may, but the degree to which he's been a financial boon to the entire media business has long been the dirty little secret of the Trump era. The bit about acting like we used to date him is totally true. There's a glee in how much we talk about him that's unseemly.
Moreover, while the vast majority of reporters in this country don't work in Washington or get off on prostrating themselves before the rich and powerful, the most visible among us do often act that way, which has considerable impact on public perception of the press.
We didn't just "create this monster" by giving Trump oodles of free coverage during the campaign season. We also did so by too often acting like courtiers to power instead of adversaries who challenge it, behavior that allowed the billionaire Trump to ludicrously – but successfully – portray the press as the real "elite" during the 2016 race, while he, Trump, was just a regular guy.
The White House Correspondents' Dinner has always been an odd concept. It's strange to me when reporters try to have friends at all, much less ones in the White House. What's the point? If the public thinks the news is Nerf-balled and stage-managed for our powerful would-be buddies – "some discomfort, but not that much" – they'll tune us out more than they already have.
To me this is like the all-too-common scenario when pundits and pols who rip each other on TV glad-hand each other and exchange digits in the green room afterward. The public may not see these scenes, but they pick up on the phoniness nonetheless, and end up hating press and politicians alike.
There haven't been too many positive developments of the Trump years, but the end of black tie lovefests and the charade of buddy-buddy press-pol relations might be one. Is being on the outside so bad?