Once President Trump decided to skip the White House correspondents’ dinner and hold a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Saturday night, there was a lot of discussion about the “split screen” effect that might take place on cable news that night — scenes from the glitzy Washington media-political gathering paired with ones of Trump surrounded by his Rust Belt supporters, a contrast between “real” Americans and the elite.
Ultimately there were few compelling dual images to show during Trump’s speech, which wrapped up more than an hour before the correspondents’ dinner program started. Still, a number of reporters and pundits kept busy analyzing the juxtaposition before it even began. During virtually all of CNN’s coverage of his speech, its chyron declared: “TRUMP SPEAKS AT RALLY, SKIPPING CORRESPONDENTS’ DINNER.”
CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all carried the speech live in its hour-long entirety, during which Trump himself hammered hard on the topic. He spent the first part of his speech eviscerating the “fake news” media. “As you may know there’s another big gathering taking place tonight in Washington, D.C. Did you hear about it?” Trump asked the crowd, who started booing. “A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now.” (In fact, the dinner was virtually devoid of Hollywood luminaries.)
“They are gathered together for the White House correspondents’ dinner,” Trump said, lowering his voice for effect. “Without the president.” He continued: “I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington swamp spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd, and much better people.”
Amid cheers of “USA! USA!” Trump assured his fans that the media were trapped at the dinner, which was “very, very boring,” and said he may make it more exciting for them next year and show up. Or not.
Afterward, the three major cable networks acknowledged both events. On CNN, correspondents John Avlon and Margaret Hoover were on the red carpet at the Washington Hilton as they debated Trump’s speech. Fox News checked in for analysis with reporter Joe Concha, who was dressed in a tux and ready to go the dinner himself. MSNBC deployed a split screen after the fact, showing Trump on stage and the activity going on inside the dinner:
CNN showed this sign from the Trump crowd, to indicate that his supporters understood the significance:
Fox News showed the inside of the ballroom while hearing thoughts on Trump’s speech from Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager:
Before Trump’s speech, all three cable channels devoted a good deal of time Saturday to analyzing Trump’s decision to skip the dinner. The common consensus: For Trump, it made sense, especially as someone who cares about TV optics.
“Donald Trump’s a showman. He’s setting up a split screen moment, he’s setting up Donald Trump with his base, the people that sent him to Washington,” political reporter Stephen Collinson said on CNN. “He’s going back to his anti-establishment roots and everyone in Washington, what he would say are the purveyors of fake news, the people of the swamp are wallowing in their dinner jackets at this big Washington establishment dinner. The message is very obvious, and it’s clear.”
On Fox News, former John Kasich adviser Jai Chabria offered a similar sentiment: “The White House correspondents’ dinner, that’s kind of an archaic thing, that’s not really where his base is. No one watches that thing. It’s really for the media elite,” he said. “This is probably a smart move on the president’s part to go back to where he won a very close margin. . . It’s a smart political move for him.”
Multiple analysts agreed that Trump was never likely to gravitate to a place where he might be the target of jokes — remember what happened when he was a guest at the dinner in 2011? On MSNBC, author Jonathan Allen concluded that was one of the reasons Trump had no motivation to attend.
“You’ve got the crowd at the White House correspondents’ dinner that has a tremendously odd relationship with the president of the United States where he attacks them constantly. They were there in 2011 and laughed along when he was picked on,” Allen said. “In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, you have a crowd of what he calls regular Americans. He’s already campaigning for that. He realizes there is little use in being with that audience in Washington.”