This Sunday at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine delivered an unflinching roast to many of the people in attendance.
Wolf joked that she hoped Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway gets stuck under a tree and that Ivanka Trump is full of shit. Most controversially, she joked that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders applies her smokey eye with the ashes of the facts she burns.
Video coverage zoomed in on the stony facial expressions of attendees who were called out, and many of the jokes were met with stony silence by the audience. Should you be outraged?
Many on both the right and the left think that you should. The Trump administration predictably attacked Wolf’s performance, and the president called the performance an embarrassment.
Even strong Trump critics such as journalist Maggie Haberman called Wolf’s performance inappropriate, while praising Huckabee’s strength in facing Wolf’s insults.
News outlets like The Hill went so far as to say they wouldn’t be attending any future White House Correspondents’ Dinners, saying that they make the journalism industry look bad.
This outrage, however justifiable it may seem, has two major problems. The first is that it mischaracterizes the jokes that were made at Sanders’ expense. Many critics of the comedy routine say that it was low and inappropriate for Wolf to specifically go after another woman’s looks and that she engaged in a form of bullying.
However, the facts of what happened simply don’t hold that criticism up. All Wolf did was make a single joke about how much Sanders lies, which mentioned her eye shadow.
It might have been one awkward line among many, but to say that it constituted a misogynistic attack based on appearance is simply untrue.
What’s disappointing is not how the right is taking this awkward line. It’s that mainstream news outlets and the public are allowing themselves to be offended by this line instead of actually watching the performance and seeing what really happened.
Being outraged by Wolf’s performance and conflating it as a media-sanctioned attack on successful women is playing into what those who wish to undermine the media and the First Amendment want you to think.
The second incredulous part of the reaction to Wolf’s performance is the enormous double standard applied to her by both the media and others. Mainstream media outlets have been quick to take a principled stand denouncing the very woman they invited to the press conference because of her “truth-to-power” style.
By inviting Wolf, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) got exactly what they wanted: a controversial, biting performance. However, when faced with the consequences, the WHCA was too cowardly to stand by Wolf.
It’s not coincidental that mainstream media outlets are attacking Wolf after she delivered a routine that not only attacked the White House, but also sharply pointed out the media’s repeated enablement of Trump even as they claimed to take such a principled stance against him.
It’s important to think about who benefits from bringing down Wolf. It isn’t just that Republicans in Congress and in the White House are hell-bent on undermining any media they think opposes them.
It’s also the media, which is eager to distract the public from their own very real flaws and distance themselves from controversy.
One of Wolf’s punchlines was that the media treated Trump like someone they used to date. They claim to hate him and always say bad things about him, but, in secret, they love him. She spoke the truth about something that many in the media don’t like to admit.
The press has benefitted from covering Trump and enabling his popularity in the first place, and they did it because of greed. They put the good of themselves before the good of the country, and perhaps when Wolf told them that to their faces, during their self-aggrandizing black tie dinner party, it was too much to handle.
Maybe that’s why Wolf is being thrown under the bus for one controversial joke, while the media continues to normalize a president that seems to do far worse on a daily basis. Is the press’ indictment of Wolf a principled stand, or a principled run for their money? Think about that the next time you think of Wolf.
Sam Mollin is a freshman majoring in political science from Larchmont, N.Y.