President Trump and his staff’s decision to skip this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests that Trump has little motivation to improve his relationship with the press, further hurting his image with our democracy and the country as a whole.
Trump has consistently bashed the media since the beginning of his campaign. During his campaign, his criticism helped create an anti-establishment image that his supporters cherish; but it is time for him to help return credibility to the media.
A 2016 Pew poll found that 75 percent of Americans think that news organizations keep political leaders in check. The same poll, however, found that 22 percent of Americans have significant trust in local news organizations, and just 18 percent trust in national news organizations.
“Distrust of legitimate journalism is no joking matter,” said the Denver Post’s Kathleen Parker. “What happens to democracy when an uninformed, misinformed, or dis-informed populace tries to make sound decisions? The simple and terrible answer is, democracy fails.”
A representative democracy is based on the idea that politicians are representing their constituents. The constituents, then, are able to vote out representatives who fail to do so. And in this media environment, constituents are largely unsure what information can be trusted, making it difficult to accurately assess the performance of their representatives.
So, if Trump wants to “passionately protect” America and its functions, he has to swallow his pride and make nice with the press.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2012
“I think he’ll spend the night focused on what he can do to help better America,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s spokeswoman, said on ABC’s This Week, defending the president’s choice to miss the dinner.
But by celebrating the First Amendment and future journalists, he could rebuild the credibility of the media and help to better America at the same time.
“My money says the thing Trump hates the most is being laughed at,” explained CNN’s Dean Obeidallah. “And one of the worst comedic beat downs Trump ever took on national TV was in 2011, the last time Trump attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
Sanders’ essentially confirms Obeidallah’s theory.
“You know, one of the things we say in the south if a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her? I think that this is a pretty similar scenario,” Sanders said. “There’s no reason for him to go in and sit and pretend like this is going to be just another Saturday night.”
Trump wrote an entire book called Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again, but he cannot bring himself to be cordial to the press—and it is hurting him. His decision to not go to the dinner is a sign of weakness rather than toughness.
Monmouth University conducted a poll last month that found that 81 percent of Americans believe Trump has a worse relationship with media than past presidents, with 58 percent confirming that the rocky relationship is hurting his image.
This history of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner puts into context Trump’s out-of-the-ordinary decision to skip the dinner.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was founded on May 7, 1921 at the Arlington Hotel in Washington D.C.; but it was not until 1991 that the dinner became a scholarship event, according to The Washington Post.
Since 1924, every president has attended the dinner at least once. The last president to skip a White House Correspondents’ dinner was President Reagan because he was recovering from an assassination attempt at Camp David.
Helen Thomas, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WCHA), pressured President Kennedy to boycott the dinner unless it was opened up to women. This was a cause that the White House staff could have nobly stood in solidarity with. Kennedy forced the the Association to include women in the dinner and attended it himself.
Presidents Carter and Nixon both skipped the dinner twice, according to NPR.
From the beginning of Trump’s presidency, he has been compared to President Nixon. Both Trump and Nixon share a disdain for the press, the establishment and their adversaries.
But during Nixon’s presidency, confidence in the media was still relatively high, with 72 percent of Americans stating that they trusted the media when Gallup conducted a poll in the 1970s.
It was not a disastrous step, then, to attack the press in a memo he wrote after attending a Correspondents’ Dinner that stated ”The reporters were considerably more bad-mannered and vicious than usual. This bears out my theory that treating them with considerably more contempt is in the long run a more productive policy.”
The same would likely not be true for Trump.
When Nixon and Carter did not attend the dinner, it sent the message that the press is something to be afraid of and that they are a strong force. But this time with Trump, it sends the message that the press is irrelevant and weak and is hurting democracy. Trust in the media is at an all time low, partisanship is at an all time high, and Trump is only contributing to it.
“Trump’s goal, his critics say, is to undermine the media’s credibility so the public will no longer believe journalists’ critiques of the Trump presidency,” wrote Kenneth T. Walsh in U.S. News & World Report.
Trump needs to take the high road and mend his broken relationship with the press. If he cares about America like he says he does, restoring press credibility will help the country and make politics more transparent like says he desires.
Jeff Mason, reporter for Reuters and President of the WHCA, wrote a letter to the organization in response to the Administration’s decision not to attend the dinner.
BREAK – no White House staff will attend the WHCD in "solidarity" with Trump pic.twitter.com/4ml0IsJrCC
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) March 28, 2017
The president and his staff are still invited, so there is time for them to change their minds.