The fiery backlash against the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner held on Saturday night continues, with one hot take after another about whether the annual fête has become an anachronism (it has) and whether comedian Michelle Wolf went too far with her jokes (she did not).
And yet, what should have been the main takeaway of the whole affair was a line that Wolf saved for the kicker, appropriately. “Flint still doesn’t have clean water,” she said. But instead of focusing on Flint, Mich., media Twitter accounts were brimming with angst about Wolf’s brand of humor. The hyperbole is particularly disingenuous when it comes from conservatives who have consistently tolerated a vulgar, bullying president. But tough love from a comedian whose job was to speak truth to power, and get some laughs in the process? An outrage.
The Wolf kerfuffle shows the high degree of attention-deficit disorder in the media, something that has become extreme in an era of nano-punditry that spews forth in torrents in response to President Trump’s latest policy reversal or Twitter tantrum. Yet it has been four years since the water crisis began in Flint, where residents were drinking tap water contaminated by lead and other bacteria after city officials switched the water supply in order to save money. A year after the switch, a study revealed that Flint water was 19 times more corrosive than Detroit water; another report found that the number of Flint children with unsafe lead levels in their blood nearly doubled. The toxic water has been linked to 12 deaths. Many lawsuits were filed against city and state officials; a class-action lawsuit, for instance, claimed that some local officials knew they were exposing Flint residents, who are primarily black, to toxic water. Eventually, some government officials faced criminal charges, but the crisis is not over.
That’s what Wolf, in her roast on Saturday, wanted to underscore. For every joke she landed, her remark about Flint was dead serious. And the struggle is very real for Flint residents — as real as the plight of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane María, who are still facing the aftershocks of a grossly inadequate disaster response by the federal government.
Saturday’s correspondents’ dinner was also a reminder of how imperfect and awkward such affairs are by design, with the national media mingling civilly with the elected officials, politicians, and government workers we’re supposed to be covering. The president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, who hired Wolf to perform the roast, rebuked the comedian in a statement saying that “the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit” of the group’s mission.
Full disclosure: The Globe had two tables at the dinner, and the invited guests included former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and US Senator Ed Markey. But perspective here is key, and that’s what Wolf was offering with that “mic drop” about Flint. Everything else is faux pearl clutching.