Just for the record, I’ve never been invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, more commonly known as Nerd Prom inside the Beltway. I’m sure this is some sort of clerical error which will be corrected presently. In the meantime, the real question seems to be whether or not the event will continue taking place. For a long time now, the media elite have enjoyed rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars and elected officials each year in a generally gaudy spectacle. Some comedian is assigned the uncomfortable task of standing at the head table and making jokes about the President while he sits only a few seats away. Then the POTUS stands up to take his turn poking fun at the reporters. Barack Obama seemed to take particular joy in this ritual, demonstrating what even I will admit was one of his strongest talents. Love him or hate him, President Obama could deliver a stand-up routine with nearly professional comedic timing.
So why would this tradition be in danger? At the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan has thrown down a gauntlet which I’m guessing other journalists will be picking up quickly. It is, in her opinion, time to send the Nerd Prom to the history books.
Once merely embarrassing and ridiculous, the annual White House correspondents’ dinner is poised to tip over into journalistic self-abasement.
It’s time to stick a silver-plated fork in it…
Now, given President Trump’s disparagement of the news media as Enemy No. 1 — “scum,” don’t you know — the idea of this show going on is an even worse idea. (Reminder: Trump’s chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon recently opined that the press “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”)
Sullivan may be ahead of the curve here, though not for the right reasons. Trump’s surrogates have already indicated that they are “not sure” he’s even going to go. And if he does, some of the after parties (hosted by Vanity Fair and the New Yorker) have already been canceled. And to be sure, there are plenty of reasons not to have the event. The Fourth Estate is supposed to be policing the government, not getting drunk with it. While there may be nothing overtly in violation of journalistic policy going on, it’s always just looked bad. When the public observes the federal government and the press all getting together to laugh and laugh and laugh we have to eventually begin wondering who the joke is really on. (Spoiler alert: It’s you.)
But when you read through the rest of Sullivan’s op-ed it becomes clear that this isn’t the real reason. Everything I said above has been known for a long time now and commented on by everyone inside and outside of the press corps. That never slowed the train down. If anything, it’s only gotten bigger and more popular over the past decade. No, what Margaret Sullivan is really seething about is the fact that Trump has already been making the media the butt of his jokes pretty much since he declared his candidacy. Can you imagine what he’d have to come up with to top that material at the dinner?
By the time he got done ripping into them I somehow suspect that there wouldn’t be many reporters laughing along with him at the tables. So if you want to cancel Nerd Prom, feel free to do so. We’ll probably all be better off for it. But let’s not pretend that it’s being done out of some newfound concern for journalistic integrity. I’m guessing that it’s just not as much fun to be the butt of all the jokes when they start hitting a bit too close to home.