Did Michelle Wolf Kill the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?


“I always wanted to talk about the dinner,” added Mr. Knox, a correspondent for SiriusXM radio who starts his year in the role in July. “But this has bumped it up a couple notches in terms of the priority list.”

The dinner’s usual format — barbed punch lines from the president followed by a comic’s roast — has caused dust-ups over the years, like Stephen Colbert’s filleting of George W. Bush in 2006, which did not sit well with the black-tie crowd. But until President Trump’s boycott in 2017 deprived the comedian of a foil, the evening had remained more or less the same.

Now, pressure on the Correspondents’ Association to reimagine the dinner is building, ratcheted up by social media, a heightened political climate and a frustrated press corps wondering if a sober moment for American journalism requires a comparably sober event.

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Ms. Wolf’s jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway set off a debate about the dinner’s format.

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Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

Executives at CBS News were so dismayed by Saturday’s presentation that the network considered ending its participation in future dinners, according to three people who spoke anonymously to describe internal discussions. The network has since eased its position, after receiving assurances that the Correspondents’ Association will seriously consider changes to the dinner’s format.

Still, even as some Washington journalists seethed over what they deemed Ms. Wolf’s over-the-line jokes, others criticized the association for calling her monologue “not in the spirit” of its mission, arguing that a group dedicated to advancing journalism ought to defend a comedian’s right to free speech.

“It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, the writer, director and comedian, said in an interview on Monday.

The Correspondents’ Association gala raises money for the organization, which advocates for press access in the White House, and the scholarships it awards to journalism students. The inclusion of an entertainer was meant, originally, as a counterbalance to the president, who traditionally delivered his own zinger-packed monologue, flaying his foes and roasting the roasters.

Mr. Trump’s decision to avoid the evening made him the first presidential no-show since Ronald Reagan in 1981 — and the Gipper skipped the event only because he had been shot by a would-be assassin. (Not one to show weakness, Reagan called in from his hospital bed.)

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Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner did not sit well with the black-tie crowd.

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Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We have a president who refuses to talk to anybody but Fox News,” Mr. Apatow said.

A complete end to the dinner has been floated, too, though it would be a special kind of cosmic irony if Mr. Trump presided over the fall of the event that inspired his political rise.

The president is said to have launched his pursuit of the Oval Office after a particularly demeaning night at the 2011 dinner, when he sat stone-faced as President Barack Obama called him a paranoiac and the entertainer, Seth Meyers, expressed surprise that Mr. Trump would run as a Republican, “because I thought he was running as a joke.”

Mr. Trump tweeted on Monday that “the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it.”

“This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for,” he wrote. “FAKE NEWS is alive and well.”

Mr. Apatow said he viewed the event differently.

“I believe it’s the best part of America,” Mr. Apatow said. “This is what you’re not allowed to do in other countries! You’re not allowed to speak openly! You’re not allowed to criticize the president!”

He added: “This is the best thing we can do. We can say you’re safe to speak out in America.”

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