President Barack Obama literally dropped the mic at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, the final one of his administration, and comedian Larry Wilmore launched into a controversial stand-up routine before Hollywood stars and Washington heavy-hitters jetted off to the Bloomberg-Vanity Fair after-party.
This time around, the Graydon Carter won’t be partying until the wee hours. The White House Correspondents Association still hasn’t announced any entertainment for the April 29 dinner. And there won’t be a president commanding the stage.
President Donald Trump declared last month that he will not attend the event, becoming the first sitting president to skip it in more than three decades. The White House announced on Tuesday that no staffers would attend out of solidarity with the president, an unprecedented move in the dinner’s nearly century-long history.
Jeff Mason, a Reuters correspondent and the WHCA president, told The Huffington Post that the priority of this year’s dinner will be “our commitment to the First Amendment.” Mason acknowledged that theme “has been a part of every dinner, but this dinner it will be more front and center.”
The WHCA’s primary role is to advocate for press access and manage a rotating “pool” of reporters trailing the president, tasks that have become more difficult given Trump’s willingness to break with traditional press customs. The dinner has long served as a organization’s primary revenue source to pay for its executive director’s salary, journalism awards and scholarships.
Often referred to as “nerd prom,” the black-tie dinner is held amid a string of pre- and post-parties, garden lunches and bleary-eyed brunches. Cable news networks now air the dinner nationally, complete with pundit commentary and shots of celebrities on the red carpet.
The event has had plenty of detractors, given perceptions of coziness between the press and the powerful people they’re expected to hold accountable. That’s why The New York Times began sitting out the dinner a decade ago. And critics have rightly questioned the decision of news organizations to give more seats to celebrities and advertisers. As a result, some journalists who actually cover the White House are left watching the festivities on C-SPAN in the Washington Hilton bar, or, in recent years, flocking to BuzzFeed’s competing party.
Trump’s vilification of the press ― from blacklisting and making legal threats against members during the campaign, to lodging persistent attacks on “fake news” and facts alike as president ― only heightened calls to ditch the gala dinner and related soirees. The New Yorker, Time and People magazines have decided not to throw their usual Friday night pre-parties, and CNN has considered skipping the dinner.
Yet the dinner will go on, even without Trump ― after all, as Mason said, the event “is a celebration of the press” and “not a celebration of the president.”
What was already shaping up to be a rather earnest affair ― CNN announced last month that it will invite journalism students rather than celebrities ― is expected to be especially mission-driven and keeping with a renewed focus on the press’ essential role in a democracy. Although the dinner will highlight the the First Amendment, it’s likely to be more in vein of Washington Post editor Marty Baron’s new newsroom mantra (“We’re not at war, we’re at work”) than his paper’s new tagline (“Democracy Dies in Darkness.”)
Some White House reporters have said they welcome an increased emphasis on journalistic principles and a more subdued weekend. Many rank-and-file reporters didn’t get to attend the Bloomberg-Vanity Fair bash anyway.
Still, spending hours talking about the First Amendment makes for a pretty dreary Saturday night. And as George Condon, a National Journal reporter currently writing a book on the WHCA, points out, “celebrities are in the DNA of the dinner.” Vaudeville performers attended in the early years, followed by radio and early TV stars, Condon told HuffPost.
Even a president preparing the nation for war didn’t stop the festivities, as Condon has written. In March 15, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt followed singers, a Navy band and a fake newsreel with a sober speech that would generate headlines around the world. The president then returned the microphone to vaudeville star Jay Flippen, and several entertainers ― a magician, flamenco dancers, a comedian ― kept the show going.
More recently, Obama famously yukked it up with the press corps in May 2011 while his administration was preparing for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden the following night. Obama also roasted Trump that year. The businessman had recently been pushing the bogus theory that the president wasn’t born in the United States and flirting with the idea of a White House run.
Obama and his recent predecessors have turned to their speechwriters and even outside comedy writers to craft jokes at the expense of the press and other attendees. And the WHCA has booked a comedian nearly every year since the early 1980s.
As WHCA president in the early 1990s, Condon booked “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer Al Franken, who headed to Washington 14 years later as a Democratic senator from Minnesota. Condon said he considers a comedian better than a musical act given the cost ― and the likelihood that wine-swilling attendees would chat over the performance.
But that could be risky this year, as roasting a president who doesn’t have the opportunity to jab back might appear to be in bad taste.
Mason wouldn’t comment on who might take the stage at this year’s event, but said he would be “delighted” as WHCA president to see “more journalists in those tables, in those seats, than we have in previous years.”