When Good-natured Laughs Become Boorish Putdowns

We'll give comedian Michelle Wolf this. Her performance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday did something that seems impossible these days. She united Republicans and Democrats in agreement that her takedowns crossed an important line of civility.We'll get on to why that was destructive at this point in our national politics in just a minute, but first there are a few things being left out of the sharpest criticism of the dinner that are worth considering.We'll start with why the dinner should exist. There are precious few opportunities these days for journalists and politicians to interact in a format that breaks down barriers. In the past this dinner did that, usually through humor that allowed for good-natured jabs with a president responding in kind. Done right, this process allows both journalists and politicians to show that they don't take themselves too seriously.In the broad sweep of media coverage of American politics, such a dinner can imbibe both sides with a little humility and an appreciation for the role each plays in our republic.OK, but what about this year's performance? You won't find us defending the comedian here. We found her routine to be out of bounds. And at a time when the president of the United States is primed to call anything critical of him "fake news," this incident makes the media's job harder.Sometimes humor isn't funny, and unfortunately, in this case, Wolf led American journalists into a minefield.We are tempted to provide a little hindsight and say Wolf's previous routines might have signaled where this could end up. But then we also know that no one is more mortified by what happened than the members of the White House Correspondents' Association, none of whom wanted this to happen.The association's president, Margaret Talev, said after the dinner that the "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." But "the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."That's true. The interests of a comedian looking to make a name for herself can diverge significantly from the interests of the press corps. But there is something else that should be said here. Good-hearted roasts — as this dinner is intended to be — are hard to pull off when the subject is a no show.If the president continues to find other places to be, we in the media should use our opportunities to use wit, sarcasm and, yes, Washington traditions like this dinner to push for him to laugh a little at himself. He's a master at one liners. We will all be better served if we laugh a little as we inform the national conversation.  Continue reading...

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