The future of the White House Correspondents Dinner
It's always been uncomfortably cozy. But maybe it will now be something better: a celebration of truth over lies and conspiracies.
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I attended the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in Washington over the weekend — the first one in two years, since the beginning of the pandemic, which had shut everything down. I didn’t know what to expect, though I had some vague ideas about how it might go — and I was pleasantly surprised, since those ideas didn’t pan out.
So I wanted to share some thoughts.
First, some background: I’ve gone to the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner in Washington — nerd prom, as it’s called — most times over the past 15 years or so. It was always problematic — journalists hobnobbing with the subjects they’re supposed to cover vigorously and without favor, all with Hollywood stars and other celebrities in the mix.
Mostly, I’ve gone to watch it all and take notice of what others in media are doing, as I’m not a White House reporter myself and more so am a media critic. But of course it’s fun and glamorous, too, and always great to see friends, as SiriusXM has a table or two and invites hosts to attend.
The argument against the critics of the dinner has focused on the idea that people can do their jobs, play their roles, and still treat one another with civility and have a shared truth, which could only help rather than harm the endeavor of journalism.
That argument never seemed to pan out for me, at least not when it came to how the Washington press corp in particular treated Republicans. Media organizations would have guests like, say, Chris Christie, at their tables, and it only seemed to be an extension of the favoritism and bias in their reporting or on air.
And they didn’t seem to treat Democrats any differently after socializing with them — still trying to prove they’re not a “liberal” media by holding Democrats to a higher standard, and still pushing Republican narratives with which the GOP bullied them. The dinner only seemed to reinforce the latter, making reporters rationalize even more so their pushing of GOP storylines because Republicans were nice people with whom they broke bread. Or something like that.
I was there when President Obama lashed Donald Trump, sitting right down there in front of him in 2011, when Trump, rather than being able to take a joke (about his promoting birther lies), became humiliated and angry. That moment is often credited with inspiring Trump with taking revenge and deciding to run for president, whether that is totally true or not.
I was also there in 2017, when Trump didn’t show up in his first year as president, after several companies and news organizations decided to boycott— a coward afraid of rejection, and a few jokes. No one else from the White House attended. Comedian Hasan Minhaj roasted Trump uproariously in his absence.
The following year, 2018, the White House signaled Trump might show up — giving high hopes to the more pathetic members of the WHCA who wanted that validation — and did send a contingent from the White House staff, including the odious press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump didn’t show up in the end. This was after a full year of the Trump presidency. Some of the companies that boycotted were back, and much of the media had been soft on Trump, coveting access to the White House and giving much airtime to his insanity. It was a terrible moment and a low point in how the media covered an authoritarian.
The WHCA itself had been hoping Trump would come — trying to work the Trump autocracy into the normality of America — and one person associated with it said they’d hoped, even though he didn’t attend in the end, that Sanders was maybe the beginning, and that next year Trump would come.
But that was all before the comic roast. Michelle Wolf was the comedian that year — and she was right for that moment. Her roast was an atom bomb, a nuclear strike on both the media and the Trump White House, riveting, and very funny, hitting the mark with its biting sarcasm. Several Trump officials walked out, as some media criticized Wolf and even defended Sanders against some of Wolf’s jokes. It was an idiotic scandal within the media. The WHCA came under criticism from the GOP and some in the media for having Wolf, and the WHCA hates that kind of heat.
The response of many Washington journalists is a particularly bad sign. It shows us some prominent sectors of the fourth estate are acquiescing to the Trump administration ― normalizing it ― rather than taking up the challenge of dealing with an authoritarian presidency.
Frankly, the reactions reek of an attempt to protect access by brown-nosing members of the administration ― but at the cost of legitimizing a president and an administration that has attacked the free press and called just about everyone in it a purveyor of “fake news.”
The WHCA then predictably caved completely the following year, deciding to ax a comedian and a roast entirely, pandering, and turning it into a boring event that still might attract Trump. That didn’t work either. Trump didn’t show. Then came the pandemic, and no dinner in 2020 and 2021.
What I was expecting this year, with President Biden attending and Trevor Noah set to roast the political elite, was some sort of attempt to return to the way things were — as if anything can ever go back to what it was, with democracy still hanging in the balance in this country after January 6th and the Big Lie.
I wasn’t thinking this yearning for a return to normalcy was on the part of WHCA alone: I thought President Biden, too, would opt for a “coming together” and “bipartisanship” and, well, all those things he’s discussed in trying to bring the country back to a sense of normality.
But the president didn’t do that; he went in exactly the opposite direction, courageously embracing the moment we are in, and understanding the urgency of it. The rise of authoritarianism in Europe and Vladimir Putin’s invasion hung over the event, and it reminded us all of the dangers here in this country as well, as the connections to January 6th were evident. The president went all in on Trump right out of the gate, describing the past five years as: “We had a horrible plague — followed by two years of COVID.”
The barbs came fast and furiously after that, hitting hard on Trump, Fox News, Keven McCarthy and the GOP. The president didn’t ignore the danger and try for a coming together moment but rather sarcastically underscored that danger. And then he got serious and sober — the first time I’ve seen a president do this at the dinner — sounding the alarm on the dangers to democracy and press freedoms at the hands of Putin, but also at the hands of extremists in this country.
Trevor Noah was at his best, also hitting on the extremists, roasting Sean Hannity and Fox News royally. Sure, he threw some bitingly hilarious darts at the rest of the media — rightly — and at the president. And Biden too was self-deprecating, repeatedly joking about his age and his low poll numbers. But all this showed that the president and the rest of us are confident, and can take a joke, while those in MAGA world are angry and insecure.
The night became one about taking on lies and reporting truths — and the finger was pointing at where the lies were coming from, including when awards were given to journalists’ work in covering January 6th.
I’ve no doubt that if a Republican is elected president again — Trump or not — the dinner won’t happen, or will go back to the 2019 banal version, with the president not being there. This GOP just can’t handle it because there’s no shared truth with their extremist base, which hates the media and rails against “fake news.”
But if that means that, for now, the dinner is about holding up the truth and sounding the alarm — wrapped up in all the jokes and the glamour — then that’s not a bad thing.