Michelle Wolfs bawdy, irreverent turn at the White House Correspondents Dinner was hilarious but not nearly as funny, and disturbing, as the reaction it provoked. Sadly, many journalists are living out the truism that everybody loves free speech until they hear something they dont like.
Its bad enough we have to hear stale, predictable fake outrage from hacks and paid pundits who pretend, on cue, to be offended by any criticism of their favorite policies and politicians.
But working journalists who extol, embody and rely on the First Amendment should avoid swooning at the mere appearance of controversial or offensive words.
Offensive is what you get when you hire Michelle Wolf. Like Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh and Jeff Foxworthy, she is the kind of comic who makes a living roaming the borders of good taste, stepping over the line here and there to make us question whether and why theres a line in the first place.
Wolf gave a disclaimer early on: Just a reminder to everyone, Im here to make jokes, I have no agenda, Im not trying to get anything accomplished. So everyone thats here from Congress, you should feel right at home. Zing.
It is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasnt even in contact with Michigan, said Wolf. Zap.
And she hit peak tastelessness with: Things are changing; men are being held accountable. Al Franken was ousted, that one really hurt liberals. I believe it was the great Ted Kennedy who said, Wow, thats crazy, I murdered a woman. Chappaquiddick, in theaters now. Ouch.
Some of the 3,000 people in the ballroom laughed; others sat stone-faced. But many of the assembled journalists, puffed up and clad in black tie, freaked out when Wolfs verbal body count came to include White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
I actually really like Sarah. I think shes very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye, Wolf cracked. Like maybe shes born with it, maybe its lies. Its probably lies.
It wasnt the best or worst joke of the night. But a range of journalists rushed to Sanders defense, claiming inaccurately that the gag was an attack on her physical appearance. They may have heard facts as fat.
The correspondents associations president published a mealy-mouthed apology: Last nights program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people, wrote Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News. Unfortunately, the entertainers monologue was not in the spirit of the mission.
Personally, I think Sanders got off easy, given the unprecedented level of deceit, obscenity and childish personal attacks that emanate from the Oval Office almost daily. Sanders churlish defense of the indefensible in the briefing room makes her a ripe and appropriate target for a couple of laughs.
For nearly a century, New York City has held its own version of the correspondents event, called the Inner Circle Show, in which City Hall journalists stage satirical skits and songs to needle the mayor and the political class.
A sample from this years dinner featured reporters singing, to the tune Despacito:
Des-pa-cito, buses and the subways going despacito / Never get there and you never get a seat-o / Everybody squished in here like a burrito.
West Side Story its not.
To the tune of Opening Night from The Producers, the journos sang: Bill de Blasio, its more of the same / The homeless problem, the lies about NYCHA, your pledges on Rikers will come back to bite ya.
By tradition, the mayor gets to give a rebuttal and throws his own zingers at the media. Its one of my favorite nights of the year.
The vicious teasing of people in power is an ancient art. In the book Fools are Everywhere, historian Beatrice Otto informs us that the court jester is a universal phenomenon. He crops up in every court worth its salt in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in China, India, Japan, Russia, America and Africa.
Our modern democracy has transferred the role of the sly jester to professional comedians and, appropriately, to political journalists whose job includes truth-telling and deflating the puffed-up egos of those in power. The White House reporters should remember that, and be sure to invite more comics who are at least as tough-minded and irreverent as Michelle Wolf.
Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.