Once merely embarrassing and ridiculous, the annual White House correspondents’ dinner is poised to tip over into journalistic self-abasement.
“The main purpose of the evening,” John Oliver once said, “seems to be providing photos of glamorous celebrities completely unaware of who they’re standing next to.”
The dinner has long been criticized for its cringe-inducing “optics” — as journalists cozy up to celebrities and heartily applaud politicians, usually including the president.
"If you're a reporter, you shouldn't be taking selfies with the defense secretary," Patrick Gavin, formerly of Politico, told the Wrap, putting it mildly. (Gavin quit his reporting gig in 2014 to produce the documentary "Nerd Prom.")
Featuring awards, jokey speeches, a red carpet at the Washington Hilton, pre-parties (bloody marys at media consultant Tammy Haddad’s Garden Brunch, anyone?) and post-parties, the event is a Washington institution. It’s also an Oscars wannabe, with a soupcon of D.C.’s geeky self-importance, hence the nickname.
Now, given President Trump's disparagement of the news media as Enemy No. 1 —
"scum," don't you know — the idea of this show going on is an even worse idea. (Reminder: Trump's chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon recently opined that the press "should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.")
And, indeed, over the past week, some cracks appeared in the event’s foundation:
Onstage at George Washington University, Trump’s press secretary said he didn’t know whether the president would attend.
Comedian Samantha Bee announced that she would hold a counter-event in Washington the same night, helpfully dubbed "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner," with proceeds to benefit the worthy Committee to Protect Journalists.
And Vanity Fair and the New Yorker announced that they were canceling their usual parties. Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter said he’d go fishing in Connecticut instead of hosting the magazine’s usual hot-ticket after-party.
Amid all this, the organizers put out a reassuring statement that plans were proceeding apace for April 29.
Jeff Mason of Reuters, the organization’s president, wrote that the dinner will, as always, “celebrate the First Amendment and the role an independent press plays in a healthy republic.”
Mason's statement went on to emphasize the awards given and the scholarship money raised. And he acknowledged, in an interview with the New York Times, which no longer sends its journalists to the dinner, that the dinner always gets "a healthy amount of criticism," and he expected that to be this case this year. (Disclosure: I've twice attended the Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie gathering of journalists and public officials.)
Asked why this year was different, Carter answered simply, “Trump, and the fish.”
The first one, at least, makes good sense.
For journalists to make nice with an administration that has trashed and blacklisted them conjures the abused wife who sends the cops packing, puts a little extra makeup over her bruises and hopes things will get better soon.
I am sure that the correspondents’ association has done many positive things — helped talented young journalists, celebrated great journalism, fostered goodwill among sometime adversaries and funded good causes.
I’m just as sure that all of this could be accomplished in ways that don’t debase the craft or give people more reason to believe that coastal journalists are neck-deep in the swamp that citizens want drained. Or that they are more like lap dogs than watchdogs.
The press shouldn’t be Trump’s enemy — a construction that serves his political purposes. Nor should it be his prom date.
Cancel the dinner now.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan