Comedian Samantha Bee on Monday announced a splashy alternative to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the annual schmoozefest that brings together journalists and the people they cover, along with an assortment of advertisers and random Hollywood types.
The comedian elaborated on the inspiration for the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” in an interview with the New York Times, explaining that her event wasn’t intended to “comment on or compete with” the existing press dinner, where a comedian traditionally pokes fun at the president. Instead, it will be a forum for her and other funny folk to make all the Trump jokes they want, without pulling punches, the implication being that whoever emcees the WHCA dinner might be tempted to lob softballs at Trump, or even that the event might be cancelled. “We just want to be there in case something happens — or doesn’t happen — and ensure that we get to properly roast the president,” she told the Times.
Asked for comment on the new competition, WHCA President Jeff Mason shared a statement that didn’t mention Bee or her dinner, but made clear that the event was still a go. “The WHCA looks forward to hosting our annual dinner this year as we do every year to celebrate the First Amendment, reward some of the finest reporting of the past year and recognize promising young student journalists,” it read.
The target of Bee’s dinner is an important distinction: If the event was billed as explicitly anti-President Trump, many journos would likely shy away for fear of appearing biased. Andrew Seaman, the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said it’s fine for journos to attend an event framed as advocating for press freedom and open government. “But if it’s designed as an anti-Trump event, I don’t think that’s acceptable for journalists,” he said.
In a conference call with reporters, Bee said the still-in-the-works invite list will include some of the “unsung heroes in journalism” and fans of the show. As for whether journalists will feel like they can come without looking biased, she said “everyone will have to be guided by their own inner voice.”
She also said she didn’t intend to undermine the WHCA. After Trump was elected, she wondered if the annual dinner would happen or what form it would take, and that inspired to just throw her own. “We thought, ‘it will be cancelled or it will the most sinister, awkward thing you’ve ever seen,'” she said.
Of course, Bee’s event underscores the heightened scrutiny that will likely meet the WHCA dinner with Trump as the guest of honor. There’s been plenty of griping in the past about the optics of reporters hobnobbing with a White House that was hostile to the fourth estate. And that was the Obama years, well before there was a president who has declared a war on the press and dismissed major news outlets as “FAKE NEWS” and a “failing pile of garbage.”
All of which might make the annual tradition of playing nice with the president and his senior staff a little harder for the media to stomach this year, Seaman noted. “While President Obama and Bush and previous presidents didn’t like the press, they still respected its place in democracy, and didn’t outwardly attack it,” he said. “There is a question of whether journalists will want to break bread with them [Trump and his staff].”
Details about the WHCA dinner haven’t yet been announced, including who will take on emcee duties. Previously the organization has enlisted big-name comedians, including Joel McHale and Seth Meyers — but given the way celebrities have shied away from performing at Trump events, it’s unclear if the gig will be hard to fill this year.
Mason said the organization has had bigger fish to fry (like, um, making sure the president still travels with a pool?) to pay much attention to the rubber chicken just yet. “The dinner is an important part of the WHCA year, but right now, we’re focused on important issues with regard to access in the new White House,” Mason said.
This post has been updated.