There’s plenty to dislike about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, a century-old institution that has lately come under fierce fire now that Donald Trump is president of the United States.
Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—which have bought tables and hosted hot-ticket parties pegged to correspondents’ dinners past—last week announced their non-participation in this year’s April 29 event; other organizations will likely follow suit.
Yet despite aesthetic and even principled objections to this annual rite of spring, the dinner continues to serve a valid journalistic interest. Journalism can frequently be a messy enterprise.
And if there’s a certain ambiguity of purpose to the much-derided dinner, Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason said he feels in no danger of being corrupted by it.
“It’s about an opportunity to lift up good journalism, celebrate up-and-coming journalism, and celebrate the First Amendment—that’s what we’ll be doing this year,” said Mason, current president of the White House Correspondents’ Association which hosts the dinner, noting that it will raise around $120,000 in scholarships for deserving reporters-in-training. “And we do encourage our member organizations to bring as many journalists as they can, because that’s what the dinner is about. It’s also about giving journalists a chance to visit with the sources they cover.”
It’s hardly a shock that New Yorker editor David Remnick, who didn’t respond to request for comment, would pull out; he has called Trump’s election “nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces… of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”
Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, who attributed his dinner embargo not only to an aversion to Trump but also his wish to go fishing, emailed: “I polled the senior staff and the decision was unanimous.”
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, citing Trump’s “disparagement of the news media as Enemy No. 1,” has called for the dinner to be canceled altogether.
In her Sunday column, she likened journalists who show up for this particular president to “the abused wife who sends the cops packing, puts a little extra makeup over her bruises and hopes things will get better soon.”
Mason, for one, bristled at Sullivan’s column, although he politely declined to slam her arguments directly.
“It would not be appropriate for me to say what I think about Margaret Sullivan’s column before I share it with her,” he said. “She didn’t even reach out to me. I didn’t really think that is in line with the standards of journalism that she normally wishes people to uphold. So I was very surprised not to have heard from her ahead of time.”
John Harris, publisher and editor in chief of Politico, argued that the dinner is actually beside the point.
“My view is that the dinner has taken on exaggerated importance in the eyes of many and the questions about this year’s event may be just the latest manifestation of that exaggerated importance,” Harris said in an email to The Daily Beast.
“The job of the news media is to illuminate public officials and hold them accountable on behalf of our audience,” Harris added. “We don’t need any president’s blessing—not this one, or the past one, or the next one—to do that. That’s how we defend our values and live up to our responsibilities. Attending the dinner has nothing to do with that, nor does skipping it.”
The National Journal’s George Condon, who’s writing a definitive history of the White House Correspondents’ Association, pointed out: “If we canceled the dinner every time you had a president who was unhappy with the press, or was hostile to the press, we would have canceled many of the dinners in the last 100 years. Every president is unhappy with the press, although President Trump is much more vocal and more personal in his attacks. But that doesn’t affect whether you have the dinner, because it doesn’t mean we’re honoring or validating everything a president says.”
Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Ed Chen—a former Los Angeles Times White House reporter and, like Condon, a onetime president of the Correspondents’ Association—said: “I am really torn about it. I personally am absolutely going to boycott the dinner because of Trump’s views on two of the issues I care the most about—which are a free and independent press and environmental protection. He could not be worse on either one of those.
“But, that said, if I’m a reporter,” Chen continued, “I’d be pretty tempted to go, because at the end of the day, it is about schmoozing and solidifying and making contacts in ways that can be useful in your job. If you’re sitting next to a Cabinet secretary or a senior West Wing official, you have that much more time to establish a rapport with that person, and that can only help, rather than hurt.”
None of the above is intended to minimize the nasty bits.
For the journalists, elected and appointed officials, lobbyists, advertisers, and celebrities who don monkey suits and cocktail dresses to walk the red carpet and sit like canned sardines among nearly 3,000 attendees in the Washington Hilton’s basement ballroom—never mind the pre- and after-parties—it’s an interminable evening of bad food and excessive alcohol that inevitably prompts self-hate in the morning.
For those watching on C-SPAN, the optics are terrible: nominal tribunes of the First Amendment joining government employees, Hollywood actors, and the odd Kardashian in a tribal desecration that mixes self-abasement with the self-celebration.
As Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said in a text message, “It is an unseemly spectacle in my view.” In the early years of the Obama administration when Baquet was the Times’s Washington bureau chief, he decreed a boycott of the event that remains in effect.
Over time, of course, the event has been increasingly overwhelmed by the presence of entertainers and Hollywood D-listers. “Somewhere along the line, it began to freewheel out of control,” former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw said in an interview with Politico.
“And for me the breaking point was Lindsay Lohan [who attended the 2012 dinner]. She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break. That’s the Washington press corps? I mean, there was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom than there is in what I’m seeing on C-SPAN here.”
Brokaw, who attended these dinners for around four decades, has stopped going, and urges others to do the same. And yet, however satisfying and heartwarming such gestures might be to those who make them, they could ultimately be self-defeating.
“It’s a dinner,” Condon said. “It’s a chance for one night a year to sit there and maybe get to know officials or sources better.”