The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is not a mood ring. It doesn’t care if President Trump — or any president — likes, dislikes, celebrates, scorns or ignores White House reporters. The annual gala does not indicate, illustrate or represent the relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it. It is an institution that celebrates one bedrock American value, the First Amendment, and two journalistic goals: to highlight excellent reporting and to award scholarships to the next generation of American journalists.
That has always been true. But the Trump presidency has inspired some in the press corps to boycott this year because — if I have this right — reporters are too good for Trump. When asked why his outlet won’t be co-sponsoring its always well-attended WHCA dinner after-party this year (and why he says he’s going fishing instead), Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told the New York Times that his reasons were “Trump” and “the fish.” The New Yorker is scrapping its own, very popular, correspondents’ dinner weekend kickoff party, as well. U.S. News & World Report’s Robert Schlesinger says “The media should go all the way and boycott the dinner entirely this year.” Of Trump, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues that it’s time to cancel the event because the press should not “be his prom date.”
But no self-respecting White House reporter has ever been a president’s prom date, and the dinner isn’t a date at all. It’s a cease-fire with bad wine and crowded tables. And if we, the media, stand Trump up at the proverbial dance because we’re pining for another “date,” we make it that much easier for him to say we’re playing favorites. And in this case, at least, he’d be right.
The WHCA already has to defend itself against the “nerd prom” cliche — two hours of live TV every spring during which gown- and tuxedo-clad journalists allegedly do nothing more than mingle with politics-curious celebrities. After that, so goes the tedious trope, reporters bow down before sources as supplicants. Never mind that the vast majority of WHCA members don’t receive an invitation to the dinner or the various receptions that take place before and after. Never mind that reporters, like everyone else, are capable of doing some work while dressed up and laughing at the hired comic or the president of the United States.
Consistency matters. The New York Times, among other organizations, has for several years chosen to ignore the dinner. Fair enough. Reasonable journalists can disagree. The suggestion, though, that holding the dinner during the Trump era would be an act of debasement, or that the advent of the Trump administration is the right moment to do away with the event altogether, strikes me as precisely the wrong approach. My outlet, CBS News, will participate this year and proudly so. If they back out now, organizations that attended last year ought to explain what is different about this year. Is it Trump? Or is it them? Skipping needlessly hands an evidentiary cudgel to Trump and his acolytes that reporters cannot and will not cover his presidency objectively.
Yes, it might strike some as unseemly for reporters to attend a banquet where the keynote speaker is a president who calls the press “dishonest” purveyors of “fake news.” But it would be even more unseemly, given our role, if we signaled to our readers, viewers and listeners that it is beneath us to pay Trump the same institutional respect extended to previous presidents. Besides, Trump is hardly the first president to see the press as his enemy. Other presidents have at times demonstrated contempt for journalists, limited our access, circumvented us and questioned our motives. I’ve covered three of them.
Holding the dinner does not confer respect on any president. It aligns one institution, the WHCA, with another, the American presidency. If the dinner were canceled because (gasp!) a president made a few snide remarks about White House reporters, that act of self-regard would say that the First Amendment is negotiable and that emotional well-being takes precedence over professional responsibilities. For myself and for my colleagues on the beat, let me say unequivocally: never.
Let’s remember, finally, why we hold the dinner: The WHCA, backed by the Bill of Rights, fights daily for access to the most powerful figure in American politics — and thereby, the association hopes, encouraging reporters in state capitols, county commission offices and city halls to do the same. Events built around the dinner allow collegiate scholarship winners to ask questions of seasoned members of the White House press corps, learning from some of the best about how they might be better reporters, storytellers and writers. In my experience, interacting with these energetic, optimistic and creative souls has consistently revived my hopes for the craft of journalism and the durability of a free press. This was vital to me early in my career as a Washington reporter, and now I see it as a chance to give back.
If Trump represents a genuine threat to press freedoms, then foregoing the dinner doesn’t change a thing. The right response, instead, is for reporters and news organizations to redouble their commitment to a WHCA dinner built around the journalism of the present and of the future.