The White House Correspondent’s Dinner: The Failure of Self-Awareness

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The tradition of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner is a long one,” said Association President Jeff Mason in his opening remarks Saturday night. “Journalists, Presidents, cabinet members, lawmakers, and diplomats have shown up for decades, and demonstrated that even though we have vastly different roles government officials and reporters can come together for one night.” He held a beat for nearly 10 seconds, with some tittering, before continuing. “Tonight looks a little different.”

He referenced of course the obvious “controversy” that erupted regarding the lack of attendance of President Trump to this year’s event. There was an immediate upheaval in the journalistic ranks following the inauguration, and after contentious weeks of speculation the President announced he would not be attending this year’s affair. As a result Mason said, generating applause,  “We’re here to celebrate the press, not the Presidency.” That is the pull quote of the night. The press, was celebrating themselves.

The non-appearance of President Trump was not only the focus of the night but in the days leading up. A number of names from the press corps commented on his choice to avoid the annual gathering.

  • I think they are going to regret not coming. I think they are going to look at this the next day and say, ‘Maybe we made a mistake here.’ Because we are going to be the ones talking about freedom of the press, and they are going to be the ones on the sidelines.”
    Jim Acosta
  • When they took the next step and said White House staff and administration officials would not come that changed it more because the members the Correspondents Association bring officials to that dinner in part to meet and develop sources…and we don’t have that opportunity.”
    Jeff Mason
  • Here are a few things Trump has dodged: Viet Nam; sexual assault charges; releasing his tax returns; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.”
    Seth Abrams

All this self-important pontificating avoids a core truth that dissipates the condescension. It was members of the press who originally pledged to boycott the WHCA event if Trump attended. There were numerous reports of preening journos pledging to sit out the dinner, just a couple of weeks after the inauguration. So the original ones “dodging” the Dinner, denying themselves the chance at contacts, and avoiding discussion of freedom of the press were…the press.

This means the very people who originally promoted Trump to the Republican nomination resented his winning the election so much they turned their own event into a political cudgel and threatened to avoid attending until he pulled out of the event, only to scorch him for doing what they had pledged to do themselves. (And journos are dismayed why people find them tiresome?)

After entering the hall the attendees located their place cards and discovered there was a small token awaiting each of them.

The press needed to be reminded about The First Amendment? It seems that Trump’s blatant antagonism to the media is being interpreted as him opposing the freedom of speech, somehow. Bear in mind, these are the same professionals who saw no issue with President Obama being controlling and openly antagonistic repeatedly towards the press.

Meanwhile, the assaults on free speech taking place across college campuses bore no mention that night. Beetter still, during a portion when scholarships for select students were announced one recipient was, with dark irony, from Berkeley.

To underscore the renewed mission statement of the press corps in the Trump era the preeminent reporting duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took the podium to inspire the next generation of truth-seekers. However in each of their speeches to rally the troops were nuggets that underscored the paradox of our contemporary press, newly sworn as they are to topple Trump. “The people with information we want should not be pigeon-holed or prejudged by their ideology or their politics,” said the esteemed Mr. Bernstein, unintentionally lecturing against the very behavior we have been witnessing since last November.

Bob Woodward came up next, quoting Marty Baron, of the Washington Post: “Reporters should display modesty and humility, bending over backwards and sincerely not only to be fair, but to demonstrate to people we cover that we intend to be fair. In other words, that we have an obligation to listen.” I don’t know about those in the dining hall, but I know I was laughing.

Finally, we came to the entertainment portion. Following the self-created uproar and Trump’s eventual exodus, the event became somewhat toxic. As a result, the best they could do for a host of the night was Hasan Minhaj, a comedian and correspondent from The Daily Show. “We got to address the elephant that’s not in the room,” Minhaj started off. “The leader  of our country could not be here tonight…because he lives in Moscow.” Yes, Russia jokes. Uh…yea.  “As for the other guy, he’s in Pennsylvania, because he can’t take a joke.”

Next Minhaj really stepped on his tongue when he made a comment about Rick Perry not being present, and joking at his expense. In truth, Perry was making funeral arrangements for his just departed father. The amusing part was later when the attempt was made by some to defend Minhaj’s tastelessness by stating the host had no way of knowing of the recent passing. I mean sure, he only spent the entire day with hundreds of reporters – how could he possibly have heard the news?!

His best summation of the night comes from about the only reference to the previous 8 years.  “It was all fun and games with Obama right? Because you were covering an adult, who could speak English.” He was referring to President Teleprompter, who surreptitiously obtained phone records of AP reporters, was verbally hostile to Fox News, and controlled the White House pool reports.

Tellingly he received a fraction of the scorn than Trump received for avoiding a dinner with these preening hypocrites.