Beltway, First Amendment in crisis as White House boycotts WHCA dinner

After last year’s Nerd Prom fiasco, this might secretly be welcome news to both sides of the ongoing White House briefing room battle. No one from the White House will attend the annual dinner staged by the White House Correspondents Association, on orders from Trump administration official Bill McGinley. The move comes as relations continue to deteriorate between the White House and the press:


The White House has directed administration officials not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) annual dinner this weekend, officials said Tuesday. “The president and members of his administration will not attend the White House Correspondents Dinner this year,” the White House said in a statement.

CNN and Politico had reported earlier that White House Cabinet secretary Bill McGinley issued an order to agency chiefs on Tuesday morning to instruct officials to boycott the Saturday night dinner.

Trump has already announced he will hold a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis., in order to counter-program the dinner, which he denounced as “so boring and so negative.”

The immediate reaction to this should be … so? Why should it matter whether administration officials show up to a WHCA dinner event? CNN’s Jake Tapper, Brian Stelter, and Allie Malloy argue that we should all care very much because of the need to protect press freedom:

Sanders had attended the two previous dinners under the Trump administration. Last year, she was infamously roasted by comedian Michelle Wolf while sitting at the head table on stage.

Afterward, while commentators debated whether the performance was too mean-spirited, Trump said Wolf “bombed” and set her up as a symbol of Hollywood elitism, someone for his base to oppose.

But the black-tie dinner is not fundamentally about comedy acts or partisan politics — it is a fundraiser and awards event that acknowledges the role of the free press and allows journalists to schmooze with sources and each other. News outlets pay for tables and invite administration aides, lawmakers, other government officials and the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

The dinner is a chance to strike up new relationships and get to know White House staffers. Sanders and her press assistants mingled with journalists at receptions leading up to last year’s dinner.


And look what happened to her afterward. Sanders wasn’t “roasted,” a type of social event which requires the active consent and participation of the roastee. Wolf launched a mean-spirited diatribe against Sanders and others, secure in the knowledge that the WHCA’s arrangements precluded any immediate consequences or rebuttals. Calling that a “roast” is intellectually dishonest, as is their argument for the value of the White House’s participation. They’re arguing that it’s essentially transactional, and then complain that the White House is taking too transactional a view of last year’s debacle.

That’s not to say that childishness is limited to one side of this equation. After getting heavily criticized for last year’s awful showing, the WHCA did make a significant change to its format. They opted for comity rather than comedy by eliminating the keynote speech from an entertainer, instead inviting historian Ron Chernow to address the topic of free speech. That concession could have prompted the White House to act with some grace; why not just shrug it off and hold the rally without ordering a boycott?

The answer: because Trump always opts for escalation, and many in the media do as well. And then both compete for victimhood. Speaking of which, here’s Stelter arguing that the White House refusal to allow attendance at the dinner is an “attack” on the media:


In contrast, my friend Olivier Knox, president of the WHCA, struck the right tone in response:

“We’re looking forward to an enjoyable evening of celebrating the First Amendment and great journalists past, present, and future,” Olivier Knox, WHCA president, said in a statement responding to the reports.

Olivier’s not taking this tack, but expect to hear a lot about this boycott being an affront to press freedom and the First Amendment over the next few days from others in the media. Don’t take that too seriously; skipping Nerd Prom is a lot less significant than, say, eliminating daily press briefings at the White House and elsewhere. And even those were overrated, having transformed some time ago into opportunities for posturing rather than enlightenment.

That brings us back to my first reaction. If the White House doesn’t want to attend … so what?The WHCA can present awards and honor the First Amendment with or without the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Fish Egg Development on hand to witness the spectacle or walk the red carpet with media celebs. The dinner will taste the same, and the media who take part in it will give it plenty of coverage. Donald Trump will hold his own party in Green Bay, and media will cover that too. This isn’t an existential crisis for free speech — it’s a contest between two sets of elites for bragging rights on throwing the coolest party, that’s all.


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