By Alina Yalmanian
On April 28 the White House Correspondents’ Dinner brought together journalists and White House staff to honor the First Amendment. Little did the attendees know that once comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage, a self-celebratory night would swiftly turn into harsh political satire, sparking criticism from all ends. A tradition of the Washington elite, this dinner has taken place once a year since 1914 and aims at bringing together journalists from all political spectrums, be it television or printed, to celebrate the First Amendment and raise money for various journalistic causes.
Usually, the president also attends the event and gives a speech, which is for once not filled with policy promises or agenda-setting but is done in a lighter tone. Another highlight of the evening is a comedian’s performance, during which he or she “roasts” journalists, White House staff, and even the president sitting two meters away. The point of it all is to reach across the aisle and bring together various actors in politics in order to celebrate one of the few topics, where one can find bipartisanship: freedom of expression. Unsurprisingly in Trump’s era, even this has sparked a scandal for this year’s dinner.
Firstly, this year again, President Trump decided to skip out on it, breaking another long-standing tradition. Even if he wasn’t missed by many, this decision showcases the current administration’s hostility towards the press. In fact, while it may be understandable that he literally wants to avoid facing criticism and jokes about him, one would hope that he could overcome his strained relationship with the media to celebrate something so essential in all democracies, especially in one that claims to be the greatest democracy of all.
I guess there was still some hope that his rhetoric against the media would be more of a ploy to garner votes rather than an actual mindset. Instead, he held a rally in Washington, Michigan, where he pumped up the crowd by saying: “You may have heard I was invited to another event tonight, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But I’d much rather be at Washington, Michigan, than in Washington, D.C., right now — that I can tell you.”
Nonetheless, compensating for the president’s absence, other representatives of the White House, such as counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, received an earful from comedian Michelle Wolf. Her attacks against them soon were at the heart of controversy and a heated debate on the role of comedy in journalism. In fact, she described the press secretary as “an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” and said that she “burns facts and then uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye”, referring to her and the administration’s attitude in news reporting and in the briefing room. The former Daily Show contributor then proceeded by uttering the following remark, which earned a lot of gasps in the room: “if a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?”, quickly adding: “I’m not suggesting she get hurt, just stuck”. She even took a jab at Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and controversial advisor, describing her as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons”.
These remarks are certainly not light nor nice, which caused journalists, including one writing for the New York Times, celebrities such as Robert De Niro, and politicians to roar out their criticism, as they accused the comedian for having crossed the line. Unsurprisingly, the president also took to Twitter to voice his views, writing: “This was a total disaster and embarrassment to our great Country and all it stands for. Fake News is alive and well”. However, while this outrage and shock that many felt is understandable, it is unfounded and directed at the wrong person.
In fact, celebrating freedom of expression also means having to put up with its uncomfortable parts, which is why I believe journalism is partly about telling the conflicting truth even if it may hurt. Journalism needs to challenge the truth and hold those in office accountable. Indeed, one may argue that Michelle Wolf is not a journalist; however, as we can see with the rise of political satire especially on late night shows, comedians have been taking on a journalistic role when reporting on Trump by analyzing and dismantling his actions and speeches. In fact I believe that with a president, who has waged a war on media and facts, jokes and laughter can become powerful tools.
Perhaps there is no place for comedy in journalism, but it is a weapon against an administration which refuses to listen to any rational discourse. It is also a way to shake people awake: I think that those who were offended by the jokes made by the comedian didn’t really find issue in the content, but what it referred to. The fact that these jokes were based on reality, and not an exaggerated fiction, showed in what state the United States is. I believe that people are shocked by the fact that making jokes about the president paying off a prostitute or about his staff totally disregarding facts, truth and honesty, is what the political reality in the United States has come to.
Moreover, the fact that some are offended by the crudity of the remarks shows a worrisome double standard in our societies: I could not even begin to list all the offensive, disrespectful and discriminatory remarks Trump has made about women. But what was the public’s reaction after they heard that infamous tape of him talking about assaulting women as if it was his most natural right? They elected him president. Now that a comedian is not even remotely mirroring his remarks but is rather exposing the administration’s failure and vulgarity, people are ready to jump at her. The question for many is if journalism and comedy in journalism should lower itself to the standard of what is being covered. Personally, I believe that if it is the only way to hold politicians accountable, I am all for it as long as journalists remain reliable sources. In fact, it is rarely a journalist’s work that is offensive, but rather the truth that it is exposing. Making use of the freedom of speech and press does not have to be comfortable.
Alina Yalmanian is a first year student, whose origins and nationality are too complicated to be explained in 2 lines. Plays the drums and practices martial arts even if she really does not look like it. On the Loose runs once a month