What Should The WHCA Do?

Every year, it seems, something happens at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that is controversial, but this year’s dinner took the cake.  The combination of non-attendance by President Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year after years in which other Presidents typically attended, and a crude stand-up routine by comedian Michelle Wolf that has been strongly criticized by people from across the political spectrum, has a lot of people talking about whether the dinner should be changed — or should occur at all.

180430_michelle_wolf_white_house_staff_roastMuch of the controversy was caused by Wolf’s routine, which launched a lot of insults at members of the Trump Administration, including some mean-spirited comments about high-profile women in the Administration like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Many people found Wolf’s performance offensive.  I’m not familiar with Wolf, but the reports of some of her “jokes” at the dinner suggests that she goes in for cheap jibs, often about physical appearance, rather than a leave ’em rolling in the aisles standup routine.  Insults about people’s looks aren’t exactly the highest form of wit.

And, Wolf’s comments put the assembled black-tie glitterati of the journalism community in the uncomfortable position of listening to an invited performer crassly describe the President’s daughter, for example, as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” — which isn’t exactly calculated to enhance the perceptions of many Americans about the objectivity of the White House press corps.  In an era in which the President routinely tweets about alleged “fake news” and claimed media bias, the Wolf performance at the WHCA dinner seems like a self-inflicted wound, calculated to reveal that the press is, in fact, highly partisan.

This year’s dinner has been viewed by many as such a disaster that it’s provoking some soul-searching within the WHCA about how the dinner should be changed — and whether it should occur at all.  After all, does the press corps really need to be seen rubbing elbows with the President and other high-ranking politicos, or would it be better to hold itself apart from the people it is supposed to be covering?

Why not just end the dinner?  As is true of so many things these days, it comes down to money.  The WHCA dinner is by far the biggest fundraiser for that organization, which then uses the funds to advocate for journalists.  The incoming president of the WHCA says the revenue generated by the event “keeps our association running” — and supporters of the event question whether big media groups will buy expensive tables for a more low-key function that actually focuses on journalism, rather than politicized comedy.

I think the WHCA serves an important function, and I recognize that money is important, so the annual dinner probably is here to stay — at least, until people stop coming.  But I think the WHCA needs to start self-editing a bit more, and thinking about the reputation of journalists everywhere when they are deciding who should speak at the dinner, and what kinds of things should be said.

1 thought on “What Should The WHCA Do?

  1. nice insights Bob. However, I do think the reaction is a bit exaggerated, especially as it concerns Sarah Huckabee Sanders. While I found her humor crude and not very funny, I don’t think Sarah was particularly singled out or made fun of for immutable physical traits. (not nearly as much as when her ex-boss Scaramucchi said she should retain the same make up artist from now on) There was a joke about Anderson Cooper’s sexuality (and perhaps the best joke was saying CNN finally succeeded in “breaking” the news). I actually see quite a lot of sexism in the outrage expressed on Sarah Sanders’ behalf—had it been Sean Spicer, who took a fair amount of abuse, i didn’t see the outrage. I recall Obama asking John Boehner whether his orange skin tone could be found in nature….and no one thought that was outrageous. Women want, and deserve to be high profile public figures and sometimes-crass jabs come with the territory. She should have just laughed it off. I’m also very disappointed in the organizer’s (also a women) failure to take responsibility. She acted as if Wolf’s act was totally out of character. Even Wolf alluded to that by saying, “didn’t you do your homework? This is what I do.” at the beginning of her monologue. The WHCA knew precisely what they were inviting and then caved when it appeared there was going to be some backlash (although there has also been a lot of applause) Crude, crass, unkind—yep. But that is what she does. I fault WHCA for not taking this opportunity to promote civility, but I don’t blame Michelle Wolf for doing what she was hired to do.

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