Before you assume it’s the start of a trend, remember that the New York Times always stays away from the White House Correspondents Dinner. If the Times isn’t influential enough to keep other media outlets from going, The Hill sure isn’t.
Credit for trying, though?
Key bits from the publisher’s letter to the head of White House Correspondents Association:
In short, there’s simply no reason for us to participate in something that casts our profession in a poor light. Major changes are needed to the annual event…
[T]he dinner must be non-partisan and done without hostility and personal animus toward the party that occupies the White House — regardless of who is in power…
Comedians headlining [past] dinners were sharp and made fun of both the media and the Commander-in-Chief in a way that could induce laughs while not being so offensive and vulgar that C-SPAN actually cut off its radio broadcast, as was the case this year for the first time ever…
Based on what Americans witnessed on national television at Saturday night’s dinner, a once-fine evening celebrating the strong, free press the WHCA speaks of has turned into an angry display and ad-hominem attacks.
No one cares that Michelle Wolf was vulgar. They care that she was mean, even though (a) meanness befits the national political mood and (b) hostility is true to the spirit of the event as it’s evolved over time, especially in the age of Trump. The populist right-wing administration hates the press and the left, the press and the left hate them back. Beyond that, a young comic hired for the event would have damaged her career if she was handed the chance to dunk on Trump officials to their faces and didn’t seize it. Wolf got into trouble, I think, mainly because her hardest shots were reserved for Sarah Sanders, who’s among the most innocuous White House staffers (and maybe the one who works most closely with the press) and who took the brunt only because POTUS himself wasn’t there to take it. If the gross spectacle of media “watchdogs” taking selfies with powerful people in government wasn’t enough to kill the event before, the undertone of hostility that now defines it should be.
— Michael M. Grynbaum (@grynbaum) May 1, 2018
Maybe they’ll get Griffin as the guest comic next year. And there will (probably) be a next year: Institutions protect their traditions, so the WHCA is reportedly kicking around ideas — unspeakably terrible ideas — to keep the dinner going while draining some of that meanness from it:
Lots of ideas are bouncing around, both among correspondents and outsiders:
— Invite pair of comedians, one with a liberal bent and one with a conservative bent.
— Book a singer as the featured entertainer instead of a comedian. (Aretha Franklin performed in 1999 after Clinton-era dinner controversy.)
How many years would it be before they ran out of conservative comedians? There’s Dennis Miller, Nick DiPaolo, Larry the Cable Guy, uhhh…
They don’t want to end it entirely because they make money off it that they use for advocacy on behalf of journalists. If they insist on keeping it going, the first thing to do is to decide if they want to keep it as a party or if they want to do something more sober. If they choose “party” (which will probably bring in more dough as more people will want to attend), get rid of all of the government attendees. No more POTUS, press secretary, generals, etc. Press and guests only. Then you can invite celebrities, have Kathy Griffin do a 30-minute set on how she wants to cut Trump’s head off, etc etc. Be as mean as you want, since you don’t need to worry about Sanders or Kellyanne Conway or whoever sitting there with hurt feelings. The speakers will probably skew even further left now that so few righties are in the room, but that’s okay. Any citizens who’d pay close enough attention to the dinner to care about partisan bias on display already hate the media and the left.
If you want to do something more sober, turn the party vibe way down. No more celebrity attendees. Just press and guests to hear a speech on media freedom or the First Amendment from a notable speaker. If you got a big enough name for that, you might still fill the room. Why not bring in Dan Rather to do his two-step about a judicious press is essential to democracy *and* how the Bush memos are probably real? You could still have government officials attend, I suppose, but here too it’s better if they don’t. When Republicans are in the White House, the speaker will almost inevitably be more adversarial than when Democrats are. (If you doubt that, ask yourself how many times Obama was challenged from the podium at the WHCD about subpoenaing the AP’s phone records and indicting Fox reporter James Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator.) Any partisan elements at the dinner are bound to underline the fact that the press leans left. So get rid of the partisan elements. That starts by keeping members of the government out.
Here’s Dave Chappelle cutting to the essence of the problem, inadvertently: He loved Wolf’s set because it was “cathartic” and spoke “truth to power,” not because it was funny. That’s the essence of this event now, at least when a Republican is president. Trump is a fat target but Colbert’s takedown of Bush 12 years ago was cheered for the same reason — catharsis, “truth to power.” President Romney would have been lambasted too for cathartic truth-to-power reasons. When your supposedly lighthearted fun roast is actually an opportunity for “catharsis” by one ideological bloc at the expense of the other, it’s time to either acknowledge that plainly or reboot.