Few people are likely as surprised that Michelle Wolf's monologue became a political and media flashpoint as Michelle Wolf. Before she delivered it, she told The Washington Post's Elahe Izadi that she eschewed comedy for the sake of partisan applause. "[Trump has] gotten comedy into a place where it’s turned more into activism, and that’s not where comedy is good,” she said, adding, “And I think a joke is not good if someone says something and immediately people are clapping because they’re like, ‘Yes! That is how I feel, as well!’ ”
Oops. And therein lies perhaps the biggest tragedy of the Wolf controversy: It obscured the parts of Wolf's act that were most worthy of our hand-wringing and introspection.
That was certainly the case with what I'd argue was Wolf's most biting segment — about the media's codependent relationship with President Trump:
There's a ton of news right now; a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. But, instead, we're covering, like, three topics. Every hour, it's Trump, Russia, Hillary and a panel of four people who remind you why you don't go home for Thanksgiving. “Milk comes from nuts now, all 'cause of the gays.”
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you.
He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off him. And if you're going to profit off Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn't have any.
These lines were much more in keeping with Wolf's stated goal to cast a light on “people’s thoughts that they sort of had but never vocalized.” And while I disagree with Wolf somewhat, this seems to be a more fruitful conversation than the one we're having right now.
Wolf isn't the first to vocalize this idea; none other than Trump himself has done so, too. He mused (joked?) a few months ago that the media would help him win reelection in 2020 because they will realize how good he is for ratings and business:
Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there, because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, the New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose, Donald Trump.”
Wolf's lines are a sort of extension of the criticism of the media's handling of Trump in 2016 — specifically cable news's decision to air large portions of Trump rallies uninterrupted. Plenty on the left have blamed the media for Trump's election; now Wolf argues/jokes that the media aren't all that disappointed in that outcome.
I've long thought this line of argument was overly simplistic. While it might have been overkill to run Trump's rallies without interjection, fact check or counterpoint, the idea is that any coverage is good coverage for Trump — that Trump's domination of the day-to-day story lines was basically a campaign contribution. But that ignores the fact that lots of coverage is quite critical. (In fact, the overwhelming proportion of it was and still is.) And it doesn't account for the fact that Trump was the most unpopular newly elected president in modern times, in part because of how he was covered.
Glenn Thrush of the New York Times put it well:
Where Wolf hews closer to uncomfortable realities is where she notes how good Trump has been for business. “I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you,” she said. “He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you.”
I think plenty of reporters would acknowledge this (and, in fact, do). But it's also a reminder that not everything having to do with Trump is the most important thing in the world and that there will be a world after Trump that we all have to navigate and try to be as successful in as we have been in the Trump era. We should also be wary of the appearance that we're covering this like a reality TV show and not engaging on substance enough. Saying we “love” him is perhaps artistic license, but we've clearly come to rely upon his antics, to a substantial degree.
That's a debate worth having and a balance worth making sure we get right — not just the Monday after the White House correspondents' dinner, but every day.