The Media Today

The elitist coverage of the Correspondents’ Dinner and the coronavirus

May 2, 2022
Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

On Saturday night—following three blissful years without one and weeks of over-the-top media hype about its return—the White House Correspondents’ Dinner made its post-covid comeback. President Biden spoke—a departure, we were told far too many times, from his predecessor’s no-shows—as did The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, the first comedian to host the event since Michelle Wolf’s (barely) edgy 2018 speech offended the prim sensibilities of many White House reporters. Both men made jokes about the pandemic, amid other targets. “This is the first time a president attended this dinner in six years,” Biden said. “We had a horrible plague followed by two years of covid.” Noah said he was honored to be hosting “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event,” before asking “did none of you learn anything from the Gridiron Dinner? The second someone offers you a free dinner you all turn into Joe Rogan.”

The covid context was always likely to loom large, but the aforementioned Gridiron event, which itself returned from a three-year hiatus in early April (and is even yuckier than the Correspondents’ Dinner), supercharged matters; more than eighty guests subsequently tested positive, including numerous reporters. Last week, Anthony Fauci—Biden’s top covid adviser, who attended the Gridiron—decided to skip the Correspondents’ Dinner, citing a personal risk calculation. (“Fauci thought it was too dangerous to come tonight,” Noah said onstage. “Pete Davidson thinks it’s okay, and we all went with Pete.”) All this raised questions as to whether the Correspondents’ Dinner should be canceled or whether Biden ought to go, and under what circumstances; some health experts said that his attendance would be overly risky given his responsibility to the nation to stay healthy, though others were more positive about his presence and the event in general, arguing that Biden should show Americans how to live alongside the virus. Ultimately, the organizers strengthened their rules to demand a same-day negative test as well as proof of vaccination (they turned down a chance to install germicidal UV lights), while Biden wore a mask when he wasn’t talking and took a pass on the “eating portion” of the event.

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Like Noah, Biden addressed the debate around holding the Correspondents’ Dinner at the dinner itself. “I know there are questions about whether we should gather here tonight because of covid,” he said. “Well, we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic.” Apparently, members of his administration have recently sounded far less sanguine behind the scenes following a spike in reported covid cases, both nationally and in Washington, where several high-profile politicians have been affected. The cabinet secretaries Merrick Garland, Gina Raimondo, and Tom Vilsack all tested positive post-Gridiron (as, a week later, did Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City); last week, Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, and, most notably, Vice President Kamala Harris both reported cases. All said that they had mild or no symptoms. Headlines and push alerts about their diagnoses rained down regardless.

After the Gridiron, in particular, this type of coverage irked the White House: according to Alexander Nazaryan, of Yahoo News, officials saw reporters’ “focus on a handful of largely asymptomatic cases among members of the political elite” as coming at the expense of a much more important story about the administration’s requests for more covid funds stalling out in Congress, with the White House calculating that Jen Psaki, the press secretary, faced fewer than half as many questions about funding (ten) in the entire first week of April as about safety protocols around Biden (twenty-one) at a single briefing on April 7. At the same briefing, Psaki frustratedly waved around the administration’s pandemic preparedness plan and offered reporters a copy. Around the same time, she did likewise with a thick binder detailing how past covid funds were spent, amid Republican complaints about a lack of transparency. Stat’s Rachel Cohrs said that she was the only reporter to take Psaki up on her offer. When she did so, officials refused her a copy, instead allowing her an hour with the binder under supervision.

This, obviously, was intensely hypocritical. More generally, covid infections among senior officials are newsworthy—isolation affects their duties and covid remains a dangerous disease, especially for unvaccinated, immunocompromised, and older people; take these factors together, and Biden’s exposure clearly matters. Debates like the one around whether, and how, to hold the Correspondents’ Dinner, meanwhile, can feed into more broadly relevant societal conversations about risk calculations at this stage of the pandemic.

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Often, though, the tenor of such coverage—and, particularly where the Correspondents’ Dinner has been concerned, its volume—has been disproportionate, sometimes absurdly so. A powerful person getting infected isn’t necessarily that big a story if their symptoms aren’t debilitating and, as has been the case with the names in the spotlight recently, they are vaccinated, sometimes quadruply so; we’re nowhere near the level, so far, of the time Trump went to the hospital in 2020. More importantly, and more to the White House’s post-Gridiron gripe, focusing on elites can lessen focus elsewhere—in this case, on funding interventions, from testing to vaccines, that are urgently needed by medically vulnerable people in particular, both in the US and globally. Throughout the pandemic, media coverage has often, if by no means always, framed avoiding infection as a matter of personal responsibility. This approach has always been deeply flawed, and it remains so. As federal covid funds dry up, programs that have supported hospitals and the uninsured are withering. The idea that the Correspondents’ Dinner is in any way more important than that is shameful.

We have seen plenty of coverage of the funding stakes. Much of it, though, has focused on Washington politicking at the expense of the bigger picture. At this (hopefully) late stage of the pandemic, the press shouldn’t be limiting our lens to the scope of congressional will, but rather working to convene a much broader debate not only around covid, but healthcare policy more generally, not least the urgent need to end medical racism and the many other glaring inequities and flaws in the system. Again, some journalists are working to do this; yesterday morning, to cite just one example, a story about funding for the uninsured was higher up the New York Times’ homepage than the Correspondents’ Dinner. But it’s hard to conclude that this has added up to an urgent, agenda-shaping national conversation. Other big stories, not least the war in Ukraine, have recently sapped much of our bandwidth on that front, and that’s understandable. But it also underscores just how few distractions we can collectively afford to indulge—and “distraction” is a perfect word for the Correspondents’ Dinner.

Not all of the coverage of the dinner was elitist; Axios’s Paige Hopkins, among others, drew attention to the disparity in covid requirements between guests and the staff members serving them, flipping the script to shine a light on one close-to-home example of covid inequality. Much of the dinner discourse, though, was circus-like and incestuous. Of course, as I and many others have written before, the dinner didn’t need covid to come along to be accused of that; as the Democratic strategist turned pundit David Axelrod told the Times ahead of the event, “there is a question of whether it’s EVER appropriate to engage in an exercise in gaudy, celebrity-drenched self-adulation.” Axelrod added that this was “a separate question”—but actually it isn’t. It’s painfully consistent for a media ecosystem that treats a DC schmoozefest as really mattering to treat the many victims of America’s healthcare system as if they don’t.

Like Wolf in 2018, Noah had some serious words for the press on Saturday, amid all the jokes. “In America you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth, even if it makes people in power uncomfortable—even if it makes your viewers or your readers uncomfortable,” he said, before pivoting to the war in Ukraine. “Ask yourself this question: If Russian journalists…had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories, or to ask any questions—if they had basically what you have—would they be using it in the same way that you do?” The immediate context here may have been different, but covid, again, was not a separate question.

Below, more on the Correspondents’ Dinner, covid, and the White House:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.