President Donald Trump says he doesn’t like the media. You’ve probably heard about this, because he won’t stop talking about it. Also: The media won’t stop talking about it. But yes, Trump has referred to the media as “the enemy of the people,” which means he fits somewhere on the continuum between “standard-issue White House antipathy for the press,” and “literally putting the entire mastheads of news organizations in labor camps.” (The joke’s on him: We already work in labor camps!)
Still, Trump’s rise has touched off all manner of discussions in media circles, many of which are good. We’re seeing a real re-dedication to the craft of reporting. Editors are talking up the need to be more alive to possibilities, more aware of the lives of others, and more skeptical of monopolies of political and economic power. This is all to the good; These discussions should be permanent features that outlast the Trump presidency.
But those in the media industry also apparently are having other, more meaningless discussions. Here, for example, is a story in BuzzFeed, about a super-important internal discussion happening at CNN:
CNN is considering sitting out of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, according to two people familiar with the matter, as the annual star-studded affair takes on renewed scrutiny from media outlets irked by the White House’s demonization of the press.
CNN is still actively discussing internally whether it will ultimately send staffers to the event, which is scheduled for April 29, according to one of these people.
“We haven’t made a decision on it yet,” a CNN spokesperson said.
How is this a news story? Why does anyone in the world need to hear about these deliberations?.
The White House Correspondents Association dinner ― an annual gathering of Beltway occupants who pretend to like each other and a motley passel of mostly confused celebrities ― has over the course of many years become a tired journalistic genre. The central criticism of the affair ― that it is, as BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg summarizes, a “bizarre spectacle of media and government coziness” ― has been made so many times already that even I have grown weary of hearing about it, even though I agree with these sentiments. Members of the correspondents association vehemently disagree with this take. We could go on arguing with each other for years.
But what’s the point? It’s been very clear for a long while that pointing this out won’t kill the damn thing, no matter how often you try. It’s also clear that no one is going to write a better story about the dinner than the one Foster Kamer and Kat Stoeffel wrote back in 2011 for the New York Observer. (Which is worth re-reading, by the way!) When it comes to thoroughly played-out topics of discussion, you really cannot beat the White House correspondents dinner.
Unfortunately, Trump has managed to breathe new, navel-gazing life into the subject by giving the media the opportunity to talk about not attending the dinner as a symbolic act of ... something? High-mindedness? Revolt? It’s really hard to say what troubling things are coursing through the heads of CNN higher-ups as they contemplate what to do about the White House correspondents dinner.
Somehow or another, though, they are clearly considering whether withholding their participation in an annual orgy of self-regard could achieve some good, after many years of never contemplating this possibility. What change do they think can be wrought by doing so? How on earth did they come to imagine that their involvement is some sort of leverage point in the Trump era? (You know that President Barack Obama surveilled the phone records of Associated Press reporters, right? I don’t recall this forcing anyone to publicly rend their garments over how the party could possibly go on.)
Obviously, CNN is not alone in these musings. At the beginning of the month, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair announced that they were “pulling out” of the White House correspondents dinner. That is to say: Those two magazines will not be throwing their pre- and post-dinner parties that have traditionally served to amplify the self-congratulatory nature of the occasion, as well as underscoring its exclusiveness.
The loss of these wholly vestigial organs was covered as some sort of shock to the Beltway’s very existence and forced White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason to issue a statement:
We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.
Oh, wait. Sorry, that’s King George VI’s speech to the British people after his nation declared war on Germany in 1939. It’s an easy mistake to make.
But an even easier mistake is imagining that Trump has made not participating in the White House correspondents dinner into some radical act of courage, an argument that necessarily implies that some sort of shame should now ― again, because of Trump ― accrue to those who participate. If CNN is any guide, news organizations are treating this as some sort of conundrum that must be wrestled to the ground.
This is a very weird problem to pretend to have!
Around the same time Vanity Fair and The New Yorker were solemnly self-sacrificing their cocktail hours for The Greater Good, U.S. News And World Report editor Robert Schlesinger stepped forward to be the voice of moral courage, urging fellow journalists to boycott the dinner. “Whether Trump himself will show up is an open question anyway,” wrote Schlesinger, “but regardless, news organizations should buy tickets as usual (it’s for a good cause) but make other plans that night and if he does attend, let the ratings- and crowd-obsessed narcissist freak address an empty ballroom.”
But let’s listen to what Schlesinger has to say about Trump specifically:
And of course it’s not just the hostility – we’re big kids, we can take it – but there’s also dumb mendacity: the inane dust-up over the inaugural crowd size, capped by Conway’s now-infamous “alternative facts” defense; the bald assertion that Trump hadn’t been feuding with the intelligence community; the unfounded and irresponsible claims of voter fraud; crimes against truth regarding, well, crime; untrue statements about the size of government; unfounded assertions that Trump’s noxious immigration executive order echoed a move by his predecessor; and of course the infamous Bowling Green massacre. I’m sure I’m missing some big ones but you’ll have to forgive me, there’s a lot of which to keep track.
All of this of course stems from the president himself. Trump is an accomplished and unstoppable prevaricator. His campaign misstatements as a collection were named the 2015 “Lie of the Year” by PolitiFact, which has found that of 359 statements of his they’ve checked, 69 percent have been “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire,” as opposed to a mere 4 percent which were “true.” Politico found that in the 71 days between the election and his swearing in, Trump “told at least 82 untruths.”
So let me get this straight: Donald Trump is a mendacious and irresponsible president, so journalists have a duty to ... retreat? I don’t get it. This is an argument to get as many journalists into a room with this man as humanly possible, to confront, to bear witness, to stand as some sort of alternative. Now you’re worried about how unseemly this all might look?
There have always been plenty of ways to suggest that the White House correspondents dinner was a gross affair, but somehow or another we’ve managed to break new ground. All the public handwringing over “[with grave intonation] What is to be done about the White House correspondents dinner” is just a nauseating act of grandstanding ― a poor substitute for some more material act that the media will either make or not make, whether they attend this soiree or not.
There are areas where the Trump administration’s actions toward the press have real stakes and demand real action ― the White House decision to blacklist several news outlets and bar them from a closed-door White House briefing is a good example of something with which the media must forcefully contend.
But questions over whether Trump has somehow made attending the dinner uniquely untenable isn’t something that should concern serious people. We are talking about a party. And for years, this party’s attendees have repeatedly urged critics to disabuse themselves of the notion that their attendance has any meaning, and have continually asserted that the event has absolutely no effect on their ability to properly scrutinize and critique the president. This idea has always been central to the dinner’s mythology, the talismanic response given to anyone who thought this to be a journalistically fraught affair.
Well, guess what? You can’t have it both ways. Stop acting like withdrawing oneself from the White House correspondents dinner constitutes some noble act of resistance, and stop making it look like a real thing over which you need to publicly agonize.
Go. Don’t go. Do whatever. But consider, at long last, the possibility that it may be better for journalists to stand in a room with their “enemy” than it is to toast a president who wants to be your pal.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.