Watch CBS News

Commentary: Who's to blame for Michelle Wolf?

White House Correspondents' Dinner backlash
Michael Graham on the White House Correspondents' Dinner backlash 08:54

"I'm just here to tell jokes, I have no agenda, I'm not trying to get anything accomplished. So those of you here from Congress, you should feel right at home." – comedian Michelle Wolf, White House Correspondents' Dinner, Saturday, April 28, 2018

Oh, Michelle, if only you had meant it.

My first real job after college was as a touring stand-up comedian, working the club circuit with amazingly talented people like Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Rudner and Jeff Foxworthy. On stage, I lived and died by one simple rule: Get laughs. Not approval, not warm reviews. Make people laugh their extremities off. Period.

Which is why the funniest moment of Michelle Wolf's partisan, vulgar, obscenity-laced set at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner was when, after a joke based on a locker-room reference to the female anatomy, she shrugged at the room and said "You shoulda done more research before you go me to do this."

It's funny because it's true!

To Trump defenders complaining that Wolf trashed President Trump and staffers like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I say: "Why the heck were you watching? Did you really expect anything else?"

Michelle Wolf jabs at WH press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders 01:33

To embarrassed members of the White House Correspondents' Association, I say essentially the same thing. You invited a Trump-hating comic from the Daily Show—a tired nightly re-hash of liberal twitter memes with a sprinkling of potty humor—to speak at your event. 

Yes, Michelle Wolf was crass, vulgar, insulting and hyper-partisan. You know what they call that in the world of stand-up comedy?

"Her act."

So unless she had some pre-show agreement about not working blue or avoiding controversial content—not uncommon for comics working corporate gigs, by the way, Michelle Wolf did nothing wrong.

The blame is entirely on the Washington press corps and the White House Correspondents' Association organizers. What they did Saturday night was the "Friar's Roast" version of a Kinsley gaffe: They accidentally revealed the truth.

The phrase "Kinsley Gaffe" comes from a funny riff by longtime DC pundit Michael Kinsley in Time magazine. He observed that in the modern era of political spin, a gaffe isn't when a politician makes a mistake, but rather "when a politician tells the truth — or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head."

Inviting Michelle Wolf was the DC media revealing their views of the president. They didn't offer critiques of policy or comic takes on presidential foibles. They held a "We Hate Trump!" party and invited the rest of America to look upon their loathing of a guy 60 million of their fellow citizens voted for. That was the set up.

The punchline? These same reporters heading back out to complain that Americans think they're #FakeNews.

Michelle Wolf's vulgar joke about the liberal media's sexual ecstasy over the #RussiaGate story may not have been C-SPAN friendly, but it wasn't untrue. And when she called Sarah Sanders an "Uncle Tom, but for white women who disappoint other white women"—a vile, fundamentally sexist attack—she was merely giving voice to the inner monologue of many in the audience. 

A former president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Ed Henry of Fox News, called for the group to issue an immediate apology, and a few liberal journalists like Andrea Mitchell and Mika Brzezinski of NBC agreed.

On the morning after her performance, however, Michelle Wolf took to Twitter to defend herself: "All these jokes were about [Sarah Sanders] despicable behavior."

"Despicable"? Really? Yes, Sanders is a political flak (another job from my misspent youth, by the way) and, therefore, in the business of spinning stories to her boss's benefit. Just like Jay Carney did for Obama and Ari Fleischer did for George W. Bush, on and on throughout political history. So why is she "despicable"?

The New York Times' Peter Baker tweeted this understatement of the evening: "Unfortunately, I don't think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight."

A question for Mr. Baker and the rest of the media establishment: When was the last time you thought the White House Correspondents Dinner did that?

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.