A comedian has been the featured performer at the White Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner since the early 1980’s. And despite some of those comedians sparking outrage over the years, this tradition has endured.
That is until this year when the WHCA shockingly announced Monday there would no comedian at their annual dinner this April. Instead, the featured speaker would be author and presidential historian Ron Chernow.
Now in a vacuum, if the WHCA had simply announced that they had decided this year to shift gears and take a break from comedy, that would be one thing. But we don’t live in a vacuum – we live in the real world, and regardless of their true intentions, it appears that the WHCA is giving in to the demands of Donald Trump, a man who after the last WHCD demanded that the WHCA change its dinner format because he objected to the comedian’s jokes.
As a reminder, at April’s dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf took aim at everyone from Trump to Democrats to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who attended to represent the administration because Trump himself lacked the courage. Wolf’s jokes included many at Trump’s expense such as “[Trump] loves white nationalists, which is a weird term for a Nazi. Calling a Nazi a white nationalist is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend.’ Or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man.’ Which isn’t really fair. He also likes plants.”
Many on the right and even some in the middle were outraged by Wolf’s barbs, especially the ones directed at Sanders. But none called for the WHCD to end or its format be scrapped.
That was until Trump entered the fray. He took to Twitter that night to not just criticize the comedy but to demand that the dinner be cancelled or format be scrapped: “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
The next morning Trump took to Twitter, again slamming the event and its format: “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. FAKE NEWS is alive and well and beautifully represented on Saturday night!”
It’s in this context that the WHCA’s announcement that they will break a 30-plus year tradition by not featuring a comedian must be evaluated. And it looks like they caved to Trump, who literally called for this very thing with his tweet, “Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
What’s especially shocking about this decision by the WHCA is that they were very visible in recent fights against Trump’s assault on freedom of expression. For example, in October they slammed Trump’s praise of Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont) over his physical assault of a reporter. WHCA president Olivier Knox declared in response, “All Americans should recoil from the president's praise for a violent assault on a reporter doing his Constitutionally protected job.”
And just last week the WHCA filed a brief in federal court opposing Trump’s stripping of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials. In that legal filing the WHCA argued, "The White House is the People’s House, and the First Amendment does not permit the President to pick and choose which journalists do — and do not — cover him there.”
The WHCA clearly appreciates the threat Trump poses to the press and in turn freedom of expression. And just as the WHCA argued in its brief last week that Trump should not be able to “pick and choose which journalists do — and do not — cover him there,” they shouldn’t allow Trump to “pick and choose” what type of criticism should be allowed of him at its events.
But the WHCA should recall that Trump has long tried to silence comedians who have mocked him. Just weeks before the 2016 election, there was the GOP nominee for president calling for Saturday Night Live to be cancelled because he objected to the way he was being mocked. Trump tweeted then, “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show.” And just a few months ago Trump railed against various late night hosts for their jokes at his expense.
But Trump’s attempts to silence comedians pre-dates his time in politics. For example, in 2013 Trump sued comedian Bill Maher for $5 million over his joke about Trump being "the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” (Trump later dropped the lawsuit.) Trump also taunted Jon Stewart on Twitter, even apparently using veiled anti-Semitism to silence the then host of The Daily Show in 2013 by highlighting Stewart’s real name with the tweet, “If Jon Stewart is so above it all & legit, why did he change his name from Jonathan Leibowitz? He should be proud of his heritage!” As Stewart later noted in response to that tweet, Trump tried “to let people know I’m a Jew.”
Why would the WHCA help Trump with his goal of silencing comedic criticism? Instead of canceling the comedian, the better response by the WHCA would be to first have Chernow speak. The acclaimed presidential historian has promised that he will use the platform “to make the case for the First Amendment,” as the WHCA has requested of him.
After Chernow, then it would be the ideal time to see the First Amendment in action with a comedian who will mock any and all, from Trump to the media to the WHCA. That’s freedom of expression on display. But if the WHCA cancels the comedian, it will embolden Trump to work even harder to silence the rest of us.