The White House Correspondents’ Association punched back this weekend against an administration that has denigrated it, attempted to discredit it and, ultimately, snubbed it by becoming the first administration in decades to skip out on the annual bread-breaking between the White House and the reporters who cover the presidency.
“We cannot ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do,” association president Jeff Mason told a ballroom of journalists attending the correspondents’ dinner on Saturday night. “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
At the last line, he received a standing ovation.
President Donald Trump’s relationship with the press has been notoriously tempestuous. He lambasted the media at his campaign rallies, calling them “fake,” and “failing” and, most memorably, America’s “enemy.”
In February he announced that he would skip Washington’s premier social event, with word coming later that his staff would follow his lead in “solidarity.” And because the affair is usually a two-way roast between the president and the press, attendees were forced to focus on what has ostensibly been the purpose of the dinner all these years: to honor journalism.
“We are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency,” Mason said. Alluding to speculation that the president’s absence would dampen interest, he said, “I am happy to report for anyone who’s interested that this dinner is sold out.”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration for The Washington Post, acted as senior statesmen for their profession with remarks at the podium.
Journalism should be “the best obtainable version of the truth,” Bernstein said, sharing his strategy for covering politicians: “When lying is combined with secrecy, there is a pretty good roadmap in front of you. . . . Yes, follow the money, but also follow the lies.” He sang the praises of “incremental reporting,” the tedious stories that inch a larger story forward, and said that he viewed this type of work as important, “especially now.”
Woodward added: “The press, especially the so-called mainstream media, comes under regular attack. Mr. President, the media is not fake news. Let’s take that off the table as we proceed.”
Hasan Minhaj, the “Daily Show” correspondent who had been tapped as the evening’s comedic entertainment, joked that he had gotten the job in this sensitive year because, he said, “no one wanted to do this, so, of course, it landed in the hands of an immigrant.”
After a sharp-tongued set that poked fun at everyone from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, Minhaj turned serious.
“This has been one of the strangest events I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. He noted that he had been asked not to roast the president in absentia, but felt it was his duty to say how he really felt.
“We’re 100 days in, 1,030 days to go,” he told the audience, saying that he was rooting for their continued coverage of the Trump administration. “You guys are running the marathon, and I’m at the half-mile mark, giving you tape for your nipples.”
The tables in the ballroom were filled mostly with working journalists – a notable change from the star-studded traffic jam of recent years. Even before Trump sent his regrets, it was clear the Hollywood community – which is vocally opposed to the president – would have little interest this year. Many of the corporate sponsors of the glitziest parties from past seasons also decided to stand down.
The streets to the Hilton were unclogged. At a USA Today reception early in the evening, there were twice as many waiters as guests. Longtime dinner regulars – such as Clinton-era press secretary Joe Lockhart and Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez – stalked the hotel’s hallways in search of normally abundant cocktail parties and found skeletal versions of them.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was everywhere, at least according to the Twitter feeds featuring her as one of the few famous faces. At one point, she was just down the hall from Alan Ruck, who played Cameron in the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ruck currently stars in a Domino’s commercial and passed for star wattage on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, at a rally far away: “I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be one hundred miles away from Washington’s swamp,” said Trump, from behind the lectern at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He lauded his own first 100 days in office, and pitied the journalists who were back at the party that he had ditched himself. “They’re trapped at the dinner,” he told his crowd. “Which will be very, very boring.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Monica Hesse