Quote of the Day:
I do not see Steve Bannon. I do NOT see Steve Bannon. Not see Steve Bannon. Not see Steve Bannon. Nazi Steve Bannon.
–Comedian Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night
Raise your hand if you even think that's remotely funny.
How wise President Trump was not to attend this moribund Washington event.
It's an annual, incestuous dinner for journalists, which is generally attended by the president. During the Obama years, it was a love fest for the president. Trump and the media. Not so much.
The dinner is always a festival of media self-regard, but this year the president-less dinner apparently outdid itself. Byron York writes:
. . . the media self-regard on display at the Hinckley Hilton Saturday was of a degree seldom, if ever, equaled at traditional Washington events — and that is saying something. And Minhaj did indeed take his opportunity to teach those assembled about the dangers of discrimination. On the other hand, the filmmaker correctly foresaw the sheer, unfiltered, nastiness — directed not just at Trump but also at top members of his administration — that Minhaj delivered along with his lessons.
Bottom line: The White House Correspondents' dinner, the premier event of the Washington press corps, was two hours of mawkish self-celebration followed by 30 minutes of Trump-bashing.
The self-celebration began with a video in which past players in the White House-press nexus stressed the importance of cherishing and protecting the role of journalists. It continued with the remarks of Jeff Mason, the Reuters correspondent who is this year's president of the Correspondents' Association, and continued further with a rare joint appearance by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and continued further with the announcement of this year's journalism awards, and continued further with the awarding of scholarships to aspiring journalists, and continued further…well, it simply never stopped.
Mason's remarks managed to be both self-congratulating and defiant, and at the same time proof that Trump is living rent-free in the White House Correspondents' Association's collective heads. For many years, the dinner has been almost entirely about the president. This year, with Trump absent, the Association tried mightily to make the dinner about freedom of the press, about the value of journalism, about the First Amendment — the big banner behind the podium read CELEBRATING THE FIRST AMENDMENT. But the fact was, the dinner was still all about the president. It was just about a president who wasn't there.
"Tonight looks a little different," Mason conceded upfront. Different, but not worse; Trump's absence not only did not harm the Correspondents' Association, Mason told the crowd, it in fact served to reinforce the group's values. "We are here to celebrate the press," Mason declared, "not the presidency."
Just for the record, Mason admitted that press access under Trump has been "very good."
Trump has been willing to be more confrontational with the press than any Republican president, and he is driving them nuts. However, I saw an item that the administration is thinking about trying to change libel laws. Speaking as a former reporter, I hope they won't. The libel laws are fine.
Press freedom, our libel laws, and the First Amendment–of these we should be proud. That doesn't mean that we have to like the current crop of mainstream journalists or that they are not self-regarding and biased.
But there are now new media alternatives, which also enjoy guarantees of freedom, and that, not by changing libel laws, is how other sources of information become available.
And of course by not kowtowing to them and feeding their self regard, President Trumphas put them on the defensive:
Part of the effort to make up for Trump's absence was the enlistment of Woodward and Bernstein, who made a joint presentation based in large part on their reporting of Watergate 45 years ago. Both men are, of course, genuine journalistic legends, with a place in history, but the appearance at times felt like two elders telling a reassuring bedtime story to a troubled child. "Grandpa, tell us again about the time you brought down a president…"
And on it went, for a long, long time. Reporters, even big stars with remarkable access to the White House, appeared on the defensive, over and over. We are not fake news, they said. We are not. Not!
I've already argued that it is time to drain the White House correspondents dinner. York believes Trump could do this:
Trump is already dropping hints that he might attend next year. Maybe he will. But he has an opportunity to kill the dinner simply by refusing to attend for four years straight. Could the dinner really survive as just a celebration of the press, that is, more of the same that we saw Saturday night? Maybe not. Without a president to fixate on and draw the world's attention, the dinner might conceivably evolve into the annual White House Correspondents' Association First Amendment Lunch.
It's up to the president.
Don't go wobbly, Mr. President.