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The News Persists, as Does the Ridicule

There doesn’t seem to be any story that’s dominating the news these days, despite a plethora of desultory options, and we’ve been too busy lately to keep up with any of it anyway. That damned Gridiron Show we do every year to raise money for the foolish cause of journalism scholarships have taken up much of our time lately, not to the mention the delightful and slightly boozy parties that followed each of the three nights of performances, and on Sunday we met with the folks at a swank restaurant to celebrate their remarkable 63 years of holy and mostly very happy matrimony.
Enough time was left over in the weekend that we noticed that the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, which inspired our local record-setting 51-year-old Gridiron Show, somehow went on despite President Donald Trump’s second consecutive boycott, although not quite as usual. For the past many decades the dinner invited a comedian to lampoon the president, then invited the president and guest of honor to make his wittiest reply, and it was one of those institutions that lubricated the friction between the presidency and the Fourth Estate, but that’s another longstanding institution that Trump has demolished.
This is the second straight year Trump has declined to match wits with the sort of third-rate comics that the White House Correspondents seem to book, and we well understand why. Having a sitting President of the United States sitting at the fancy table used to be a big drawing card for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and to keep that going the adversarial decided to end the traditional lampooning by a comic and instead invite an esteemed academic historian to give a brief lecture. It didn’t get any laughs, but of course it was just as harshly critical of Trump as anything some smart-ass comedian might have come up with, and all those enemies of the people in the “fake news” media went right ahead and dressed up and had few drinks and had a grand old time of the evening.
Meanwhile, here in Wichita, the local media’s far less fancy Gridiron Show went pretty well by amateur theatrical standards. We got some laughs and raised some money for the foolish cause of journalism scholarships, and some of the laughs were aimed at Democrats and a lot of them where aimed at Trump. There’s no stopping free people from laughing at their leaders, and before we dig into the news again today we’ll pause to be glad that some institutions can’t be demolished.

— Bud Norman

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Whose Afraid of the Big, Bad Michelle Wolf?

Going into a happily eventful weekend here in Wichita, we were happily unaware of the existence of a woman named Michelle Wolf. By the time we got home from church and a dreary reading by some grad students in the local university’s creative writing program and much-needed beer at Kirby’s Beer Store just across the street, Wolf was even more viral than the President Donald Trump himself, despite his most virulent efforts.
As we now know all too well Wolf is a comedian best known for her short satiric contributions to the Comedy Channel’s “Daily Show,” one of several late-night over-the-air and through-the-cable channels devoted to celebrity guests and Trump-bashing, but what landed her in all the newspapers and endless hours of an otherwise weekend news cycle on the 24-hour news networks was a 19 minute routine Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual fancy-schmantzy and headline grabbing dinner. As one might expect of a late night comic, her humor about Trump was unabashedly harsh, and she was just as harsh about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, who were seated uncomfortably nearby, and the routine met with mixed reviews and a dramatic spike in Wolf’s name recognition.
Trump’s die-hard fans were predictably appalled at the lack of respect for a sitting President of the United States, even if he was wasn’t sitting nearby, and took chivalrous umbrage at Wolf’s even harsher treatment of the two distaff Trump administration officials who did happen to be seated nearby. Even The New York Times’ excellent White House correspondent and longtime Trump tormenter Maggie Haberman — recently disparaged in a Trump “tweet” as a “third-rate reporter” he “has nothing to do with” — “tweeted” that she thought Wolf’s act went over the line. Other journalism types from both the left and the right shared their usual gripes about journalists getting all dolled up to hob-nob with politicos in the first place. Some Democratic politicos wound up on the cable news worrying that it would only feed Trump’s narrative that those “enemies of the people” in the “fake news” were out to get him.
While Wolf was getting scattered laughter and occasional applause from her elite Washington, D.C., audience, Trump was somewhere in Michigan wowing a revved up rally of his die-hard fans with an hour-and-19-minute insult comedy routine of his own. He tossed around the usual taunting nicknames and did his usual shtick about the weak Democrats, cast his usual aspersions against the more critical media, and got a big roar from the packed blue-collar crowd by telling them how much he preferred basking in their love to sitting next to some smart-mouthed late comedian regaling a bunch of Washington-type journalists and politicos who hated not only him but all his loyal supporters, and late Sunday, when Wolf’s agent was planning her contract re-negotations, the journalists and politicos were largely doing damage control.
Still, Wolf’s diatribe somehow got more column inches and air time than Trump’s, and she did have her defenders. The most convincing, as far as we’re concerned, came from the right. The National Review’s excellent cultural correspondent Katherine Timpf, whose precociously keen insights into the latest academic and pop cultural absurdities and youthfully geeky good looks have made her some something of a viral sensation, reasonably agrees that Wolf overstepped boundaries, but quite rightly argues that the die-hard fans of such a boundary-overstepping President of the United States as Trump are no longer entitled to gripe about any private citizen’s insult comedy shtick.
These viral viruses tend to pass quickly, though, and that Wolf woman will likely fade into obscurity soon enough, and eventually even Trump’s top-rated reality show is going to be cancelled, one way or another. We’re hopeful that freedom of the press will survive all this craziness, despite the press’ occasional overstepping of boundaries, and we hold out a slightly fainter hope for the institution of the presidency.
For what it’s worth, we thought that a couple of Wolf’s jokes were pretty good, most weren’t, and her delivery could have used a few years of vaudeville training. There’s another woman you’ve never heard of named Desi Lydic who also gets a few minutes on the “Daily Show” and is just as harsh on Trump and a whole lot funnier and kind of cute in a geeky way herself, and we’d like to see her or Timpf at a future White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. In any case the whole contretemps will soon blow over, in one direction or another, and we’ll be left with our nation’s degraded political discourse.

— Bud Norman

Comforting the Comfortable

There’s an old newspaper adage that a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists are so fond of such nonsense that if you spend any amount of time with them you’ll soon grow weary of hearing it. After 35 years of working with newspapers we have vowed that the next time we hear anyone repeating this balderdash we will immediately go in search of a sockful of horse manure with which to pummel him.
It’s not so much how the adage negates a superior notion that a journalist’s job is to accurately report what is going on in the world, without regard to who is comforted or afflicted or by the truth, but rather that it’s so very out of date. The phrase apparently originated with Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote an Irish-accented column as “Mr. Dooley” way back in the good old days of yellow journalism when ethnic humor was respectable and journalists were not, and we wonder what the ink-stained wretch would make of the oh-so-comfortable scribes in attendance at this past Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
You’ve heard of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, of course, even if you make a point of avoiding all that boring political stuff in the news. The annual black-tie event has joined the Golden Globes awards and the global warming alarmist movement as one of those things that every self-respecting celebrity simply must do, and it now receives the same saturation coverage as any other show-biz event. This year Vanity Fair rushed to the internet with pictures of the “Hollywood A-listers and Washington-insiders” who attended the magazine’s after-party bash at the Kalorama residence of the French ambassador, and even the most staid news outlets were similarly star-struck. New York Magazine found it newsworthy that the First Lady wore a Lacy Monique Lhuillier gown, which is apparently some sort of fancy dress, and it  could not restrain itself from adding that “damn does she look good.”
Each year’s dinner features a monologue by a well-known comedian who is expected to poke fun at both politicians and reporters, thus allowing both groups to demonstrate what good sports and regular folk they are, but tradition also dictates that a gentler brand of humor be employed regarding Democrats. This year the honor went to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, who hewed rigorously to tradition. One of his few Obama jokes made mention of the fact that both he and the president attended Harvard University, and he ended with a heartfelt thanks to the president for helping his hometown of Boston “heal” from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Whatever healing powers the president exerted might not have been necessary if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been less sensitive to Muslim sensitivities when following up on Russian warnings about the bombers, an aversion to Islamophobia that has been imposed from the very top of levels of government, but O’Brien’s partisan fun-poking should have been expected. We well recall that during the Bush administration O’Brien used to regale his television audiences by doing a presidential imitation that involved mimicking a mentally retarded person and saying “duh,” a Swiftian sort of satire that the proud Harvard man could have just as easily learned on the playgrounds of Kistler Elementary School.
The president also spoke, which is another yearly feature of the event. Tradition dictates that the presidential monologue be self-deprecating, but Obama seems unable to make fun of himself lest it be considered racist. He acknowledged an embarrassing 2-for-22 shooting performance on the basketball court during the White House Easter egg roll, but only as a set-up for a joke about the NBC ratings, and most of the jokes were aimed a political opponents such as a wealthy Republican campaign donor. The watchdogs of the press politely roared, of course, and by all accounts everyone seemed very comfortable.

— Bud Norman