Ten years ago, Stephen Colbert brought his hard-right caricature of The Colbert Report to the final White House Press Correspondents Dinner of George Bush's presidency. The comedian's brutal roast upended the evening's long-held tradition of gentle ribbing, but his contempt was successfully masked with class and poise. This weekend, Larry Wilmore, whose The Nightly Show took over Report's Comedy Central time slot when he left to replace David Letterman, followed Colbert again in style and distinction. This time, however, the target was not a president—Obama is polling much, much higher than Bush was during the last months of his tenure—but the journalists in attendance.
His routine was likely hilarious to the majority of Americans who don't trust the media. But for the journalists who were present Saturday night, Wilmore gave them twenty-two minutes of groans and uncomfortable fidgeting. A quick rundown: he compared MSNBC to Boko Haram for its rout of black faces; Wolf Blitzer looked as beguiled as Wilmore did when he questioned The Situation Room's continued existence; and Don Lemon flipped Wilmore off for being referred to as an “alleged journalist.”
It seems ignoble to search for missteps in a speech so brave. But as comedic material goes, there's hardly a richer vein than the irony in such a glamorous celebration of press freedom under an administration that destroys the lives of investigative journalists and whistleblowers. But even Obama wasn't spared from Wilmore's searing routine: “Both of you like raining bombs on people from long distances,” he said, comparing the president's drone strikes to Steph Curry's style of basketball.
This evening is supposed to be a celebration of one of the core tenets of democracy. Telling a room of hundreds of powerful people that they're undermining it—by, for example, offering uneven media coverage to Donald Trump or by miscatergorizing the Black Lives Matter movement—is the best manifestation of another tenet. If the 1% of journalism aren't willing to do their work properly, the least they can do is have someone put them in their place once a year.