Killing the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

A year ago, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Michelle Wolf performed a comedy set that killed. She brutally took down Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, saying that she “burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.” Sanders did not laugh. Wolf called out the press: Donald Trump “helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.” Afterward—as prominent journalists clutched their pearls—the leadership of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which hosts the dinner, said that Wolf’s routine was “not in the spirit” of its mission. Months later, the organization announced that it would not be inviting a comedian in 2019; instead, Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, among other major books, would speak. “The WHCA are cowards,” Wolf tweeted.

It will be the first time in 15 years that the dinner—which takes place at the Washington Hilton tomorrow night—won’t feature a comedian. For a third successive year, it won’t feature the president, either: in early April, Trump, calling the dinner “boring and negative,” announced that he would instead hold a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (The last president not to attend a WHCA dinner was Ronald Reagan, who had just been shot.) Nor will any of Trump’s staff be present. This week, the president banned all officials in his administration from showing up. Add a decline in A-list celebrity interest and, as Politico’s John F. Harris and Daniel Lippman put it, the event is in a “semi-flaccid state.” The DC-dinner-industrial-complex of luxury hotels, salons, cars, and caterers has taken a hit, its denizens say. “It’s possible the White House Correspondents’ Dinner won’t even be the most glamorous thing on C-SPAN this weekend,” Harris and Lippman write.

ICYMI: Here’s what happened inside The Markup

Since Trump announced that he would run for president—a decision that some trace to his humiliation by Barack Obama and Seth Meyers, at the 2011 dinner—he has said and done countless things to hurt the free press. Banning administration staff from a glitzy social event is not among them, however: it is, at worst, a miserly and controlling approach to their free time. Olivier Knox, the current president of the WHCA, told Politico, “Let’s be clear that the administration curtailing White House press briefings, Pentagon briefings, State Department briefings, is considerably more serious than if the president’s attending the correspondents’ dinner.”

Some reporters say the event’s decline is a shame. “There are still lots of reasons why it’s useful for reporters and sources to schmooze,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote last night. But a growing chorus of journalists and media-watchers argue that the format is inappropriate and should be scrapped. Doing so would not end schmoozing. But it would end a public example of schmoozing at a time when trust in the press is at a low ebb. “Every caricature thrust upon the national press—that we are culturally elitist, professionally incestuous, socioeconomically detached, and ideologically biased—is confirmed by this trainwreck of an event,” Politico’s Tim Alberta tweeted last year. “Journalists, the joke’s on us.”

The WHCD Must Die argument has been supercharged by the Trump presidency. But it is not new. Very little about the dinner is. Wolf was not the first comedian to upset members of the press corps. In 2006, Stephen Colbert eviscerated George Bush and the media over Iraq—and the next year’s booking, Rich Little, was play-safe counterprogramming. Ten years later, Larry Wilmore divided opinion, too. The only difference, in 2019, is that Trump, unlike Bush or Obama, is helping us kill the dinner. For once, we should not resist. As Margaret Sullivan, who argues for the dinner’s demise every year, writes, “Trump is certainly no friend of the free press, but in his role as dinner-damper, he’s done journalists a huge favor.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

  • Play it again, Sam: In 2017, Samantha Bee, a late-night host and comedian, hosted Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an alternative to the dinner that broadcast at the same time. (According to TV by the Numbers, Bee drew more viewers than the real thing.) This year, she’s bringing it back. “Ultimately, we’re honoring journalists,” Bee told CBS.
  • Puzzling math: Defenders of the dinner often invoke its celebration of the First Amendment and role funding scholarships for students. Last year, however, CJR’s Karen K. Ho found that less than half the money raised at the 2017 dinner had been spent on scholarships. “The rest went to general operating expenses like the organization’s searchable pool report archive or programming like panels with former White House secretaries.”
  • Not my jam: Last year, Kayla Randall reported for CJR from the White House Correspondents’ Jam, an invite-only WHCD-weekend event that has showcased the bands of journalists like Lester Holt and David Remnick. This year, The Washington Post’s Emily Heil and Helena Andrews-Dyer report, there will be no jam—Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones keyboardist who hosts it, has a prior engagement.
  • A play area for children: Sanders held a first formal White House press briefing in 46 days yesterday. It was “kids only,” and she still tried to keep it off the record. (The Associated Press and other outlets refused those terms.) At the end of the briefing, held in honor of “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” one (adult) journalist shouted, “Sarah, when will you brief for the real reporters?”


Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram has a deep look inside The Markup, the non-profit investigative startup rocked, earlier this week, by the firing of Julia Angwin, its editor and cofounder. In the first in-depth interview since the imbroglio, Sue Gardner, CEO, said that Angwin should have been more willing to take part in team-building exercises, like submitting to a Myers-Briggs personality test, and more enthusiastic about attending meetings. Angwin says she was enthusiastic about improving as a manager. Following her ouster, five of seven editorial staffers quit in protest. They are still being paid as the site’s funders reassess their backing.
  • Joe Biden is (finally) running for president. His announcement sparked a round of “the one Democrat who can beat Trump” chatter—but other early headlines were less favorable. The Times reports that Anita Hill—whose 1991 Senate testimony alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, who was named to the Supreme Court, was chaired by Biden—was left “deeply unsatisifed” when Biden called her recently to apologize for his conduct back then. And The Daily Beast reports that Susan Bro—whose daughter, Heather Heyer, was murdered during a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in 2017—was not informed that Biden’s announcement video would center on the incident. “Most people do that sort of thing,” Bro said. “They capitalize on whatever situation is handy.” (Read our extensive interview with Bro from our latest issue.)
  • For CJR, Eric Berger profiles Joel Birket, whose job mostly consists of dismantling printing presses, including some that his father installed. “In 1989, Birket’s dad had installed the Tennessean’s printing press. Nearly three decades later, Birket had returned to take it apart,” Berger writes. “Faced with declining circulation and advertising revenue, an increasing number of newspapers, most of which used to have a press in a backroom or basement, have outsourced their printing.”
  • Digital staffers at Time are pushing to unionize. “The iconic magazine’s print employees have been unionized for 80 years through the NewsGuild,” The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports. “But the union’s contract has not covered staffers designated by the company as primarily digital focused…Digital staff said only employees who prove they spend 30 percent of their time working on print are currently allowed to join.”
  • This week, Facebook hired both an official who helped push the PATRIOT Act through Congress and a privacy advocate who vigorously opposed it. The divergent moves, Politico’s Nancy Scola and Steven Overly report, highlight Facebook’s “two-track approach to Washington, tapping Republican insiders to deal with the Trump administration and GOP-controlled Senate, while scooping up privacy activists to help navigate the seemingly endless user data scandals surrounding the company.”
  • For Politico Magazine, Steven Perlberg assesses a political turn at The Intercept, the national-security site cofounded by Glenn Greenwald. “Depending on whom you ask, the Intercept is either cleansing the Democratic Party and pushing it to be more accountable to voters and regular people—or it is a Breitbart of the left, trafficking in drive-by hit pieces, an approach that will ultimately undercut the larger goals the site supports.”
  • French intelligence authorities have opened a leak investigation after Disclose, an investigative news outlet, and media partners including Radio France and The Intercept obtained a classified military note revealing that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used French weapons in Yemen—contradicting French official denials. Three journalists who worked on the story have been called to testify. They fear they will be forced to reveal their sources.
  • And Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists with local news organizations, announced its 2019 class placements. It will distribute 61 reporters across 50 newsrooms; the full list is here. In October, CJR’s Andrew McCormick checked in with the program as it started to get off the ground.

ICYMI: Don’t rely on the coverage. Read the Mueller report.

Correction:  A previous version of this post said that CJR’s Karen K. Ho found that less than half the money raised at the 2016 WHCD had been spent on scholarships. Her findings were for 2017, not 2016. The post has been updated.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.