The White House Correspondents Dinner, Without the White House
Attending the White House Correspondents Association dinner as a guest of Yahoo! News was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The food was outstanding,–”we’re eating the same food as Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash,” as someone at my table put it–and the people could not have been more generous. But, the event itself was fascinating.
Although I have no barometer of a previous dinner to compare this one to, the president’s absence didn’t seem to damper anyone’s spirits. Sure, it would have been incredible to see his reaction to the jokes Hasan Minhaj lobbed at him. The dinner, though, went off without a hitch. Being in the presence of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was magical, and the energy and optimism in the room was incalculable. It was an amazing night to be a journalist.
Of course, the president’s absence still remained one of the major themes of the night. There are two major themes worth exploring from the evening, and they together made the night the enigmatic yet exciting event it was.
Theme One: President Trump’s Absence
As Hasan Minhaj put it, “we gotta address the elephant that’s not in the room.”
President Donald Trump tweeted on February 25 that he would not attend this year’s iteration of the WHCA dinner:
I will not be attending the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2017
While he wished everyone luck and an enjoyable evening, his words at a concurrent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania indicated otherwise. President Trump further painted the media as an antagonist of the White House and the U.S. government at the event, as he noted on Twitter:
Mainstream (FAKE) media refuses to state our long list of achievements, including 28 legislative signings, strong borders & great optimism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 29, 2017
But Trump’s attitude did not stop the WHCA dinner from chugging ahead full steam. WHCA President Jeff Mason made sure to emphasize that despite Trump’s absence, the media is celebrating journalists and their hard work, especially over the past year. He made sure to credit their integrity, noting that the media “is not fake news,” to a standing ovation.
But, back to Trump. I’m not sure President Trump’s absence from this event helped him in any apparent way. It made it more fun for Minhaj and the journalists in attendance, since they could say whatever they wanted without fear of an instant harsh reaction. For Trump, though, his absence was an admission of defeat. Minhaj joked that Trump was in Pennsylvania because he couldn’t take a joke; I tend to agree. See: WHCA dinner, 2011, Trump’s reaction, for evidence.
Even though Trump’s voter and fan base will side with their leader and use the media’s treatment of Trump as an explanation, that alone shouldn’t be a cause célèbre. If Trump had really wanted to make a statement and stand in the face of the mainstream media, he should have been sitting at that table, beaming smugly, and proving to journalists and constituents alike that he truly did not care what anyone thinks or says about him.
Instead, his absence from the dinner allowed him to assault the media from afar. I’m guessing his reason for being “thrilled to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp” was that he, too, could say whatever he wanted without fear of backlash.
In the end, everyone got what they wanted. But in Trump’s case, he did not send the strongest message possible by skipping out on the dinner.
Theme Two: The Media’s Role, Now and Moving Forward
The most awe-inspiring moment of the night was Bob Woodward taking the podium and declaring that the media is “not fake news.” He and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, were the guests of honor last night.
Woodward also went on to speak about the adversarial role of the media and the public’s distrust in the press. He referenced the words of Ben Bradlee, his executive editor at the time of the Watergate scandal:
“We also need to face the reality that polling numbers showed that most Americans disapprove of and distrust the media,” Woodward said. “This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness. But as Ben Bradlee said in 1997, ‘the most aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. So be it.’”
Perhaps Bernstein’s biggest moment of the night was an allusion to his own mantra during the Watergate scandal. He added onto it, though, by saying, “Yes, follow the money, but follow, also, the lies.”
Before the formalities began, I had the opportunity to talk with Dana Bash. During our conversation, Bernstein passed by, and she urged me to turn around and meet him.
So, I did. I shook his hand, and we talked about the importance of cultivating sources and the future of journalism. It was my personal favorite moment of the night, and one I’ll never forget.
An Uplifting Takeaway
Minhaj’s most telling joke about the media came when he classified journalists as a “minority.”
“You guys have to be more perfect now more than ever, because you are how the president gets his news,” Minhaj said. “Not from advisers, not from experts, not from intelligence agencies. You guys. So that’s why you gotta be on your ‘A’ game. You gotta be twice as good. You can’t make any mistakes. Because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group. And now you know what it feels like to be a minority.”
Minhaj is ironically correct. No, journalists aren’t a minority. But, he’s right that journalists have to be at their best during this administration. One mistake from one journalist represents a mistake for the entire media. President Trump and the White House will spin it that way, and the base that elected him into office will surely follow.
Nevertheless, the night set an optimistic tone. This is an even more important time to be a journalist. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s accountable journalism that matters most.
The WHCA dinner motivated me more than ever to make an impact in the world of journalism. And it was truly an honor to be a part of it this year.