Sarah Huckabee Sanders Is Fair Game

Comedian Michelle Wolf at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner afterparty on April 28, 2018, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is seen at the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after-party and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters.

After a few big-name journalists panned Michelle Wolf’s act at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night, the association that hosts the dinner published its own negative review of the comedian’s performance. In a statement that referred to Wolf only as “the entertainer,” White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Talev said Wolf’s monologue “was not in the spirit of [the dinner’s] mission … to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners.”

For anyone who has ever watched a WHCD monologue, this stated mission may come as a surprise. The WHCA invites comedians to its annual black-tie dinner to make fun of the president, other politicians, and the press, not to champion civil discourse or fete a teen who won a scholarship. At last year’s event, headliner Hasan Minhaj joked that Jeff Sessions loves the N-word, that Betsy DeVos collects the tears of children, and that Steve Bannon is a literal Nazi. If the WHCA was unhappy in 2017 to receive the plaudits of viewers who were pleased to see someone express all the things self-serious journalists won’t say, there was no statement issued to that effect.

The organization’s tradition of getting a comedian to roast the current administration is not new. Its capitulation to trumped-up charges of bias from right-wing trolls, however, is. Anyone who claims right-wingers will use Wolf’s monologue as a reason to rebuff the mainstream press is sadly deluded about the main reason why people mistrust journalists these days: Because facts are inconvenient to the self-serving narratives peddled by the GOP, which repeats ad nauseam, via Fox News and right-wing radio, that all other media outlets are telling lies.

There are good arguments to be made about the unseemliness of the WHCD in general—as a rule, journalists shouldn’t be palling around with the political leaders they cover. The idea of TV news anchors in black ties chortling over their surf ’n’ turf about some president’s endearing flub can be even harder to stomach under an administration that has posed unprecedented threats to democracy, peace, and human dignity. Watching politicians and journalists abandon their fundamentally antagonistic relationship for a night to congratulate themselves for inheriting some ancient concept of a robust, thriving free press does more to degrade trust in the media than Wolf’s joke about Scott Pruitt ejaculating at the thought of a dying tree.

The most popular criticisms of Wolf’s act don’t hold up to even passing scrutiny. Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ most famous White House scoop getter, said it was “impressive” that Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders endured “intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth” without leaving the room. Haberman clarified in a later tweet that she was most concerned about Wolf’s mention of Huckabee Sanders’ “smoky eye” makeup. But Wolf never quite said the makeup was bad—and, in any case, criticisms of appearance-based things public figures can control (makeup, clothes, hairstyles) are generally seen as fair game, while criticisms of things they can’t (weight, wrinkles, body shape) are generally considered in poor taste. It’s not rude, for example, to note that the vast majority of the women on Fox News are blonde, thin, and heavily made up, because their precise brand of uniformity tells us something about the values the network holds and the image it wants to project.

Other reporters from Politico, CNN, and the New York Times tweeted Wolf was “unnecessarily cruel,” “an embarrassment to the room,” and failed to advance “the cause of journalism.” If the WHCA wanted its headliner to advance the cause of journalism, it would have commissioned a rousing half-hour of platitudes from a Pulitzer winner. Instead, it hired a comedian. Some comedians might find it irresponsible to restrict their acts to good-natured jabs at matters of no consequence. Jimmy Fallon came in for deserved criticism when he ruffled Trump’s hair during a pre–election interview; his flippancy made Trump seem normal, affable, self-aware, innocuous—all reassuring qualities for people looking for excuses to pull the lever for a racist ignoramus. Any light-hearted jokes about Trump officials that would sit well with, say, Mika Brzezinski, who said she “hurt for Sarah, her husband, and her children” after hearing Wolf’s jokes, would only obscure the truth of this administration and ignore the victims of its cruelty. Pearl-clutching recaps have noted that Wolf used the word pussy several times in her monologue, in the context of Trump’s alleged sexual abuse. Now that America has elected a president who boasts about grabbing pussies, no journalist can credibly assert that pussy is too cutting an epithet to include in a political comedy routine.

It’s telling that journalists and pundits have taken the most umbrage with Wolf’s bits on Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway. Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter said people thought those two sets of jokes “were too personal.” Wolf’s only digs at Conway concerned her habit of telling lies on TV, and her “smoky eye” reference to Huckabee Sanders was a way into the press secretary’s own penchant for untruths. Observing that the president’s communications arm is misinforming the American people through a credulous, ratings-hungry press is neither personal nor particularly hurtful to Conway and Huckabee Sanders, who are smart enough to know exactly what they’re doing. If a government official’s job performance is off limits, then what else does a comedian (or a journalist, for that matter) have to work with?

Wolf did make a few far more personal insults in her monologue: She riffed on Mitch McConnell’s “circumcised” neck, Donald Trump Jr.’s greasy hair, and the all-but-useless Eric Trump, whom Wolf said the president tried to sell off. But Conway and Huckabee Sanders inspired the loudest protective impulses from the public for the simple fact that they’re women. The assumption that women are more damaged than their male colleagues by the insults of a raunchy comedian comes from a benevolent sexism that portrays women as fragile beings whose dignity must be preserved. The Trump administration has exploited this notion by using right-wing women to insulate itself from accusations of misogyny and abuse. If a comedian can’t point out that two demagogue-flattering women lie to the press, that’s a failure of political comedy. If White House reporters refuse to recognize the valid criticism, that’s a failure of journalism.