WASHINGTON ― Marty Baron initially wasn’t planning to come to this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but decided he “should be here.”
“The White House said that they weren’t sending anyone out of solidarity with the president,” The Washington Post’s executive editor told HuffPost upon entering the Hilton Ballroom on Saturday night. “I think people are here out of a sense of solidarity.”
Journalists “feel a common purpose” these days in supporting the fundamental role of the press, Baron said, and they “don’t necessarily need the razzmatazz to celebrate what it is we do and rededicate ourselves to what we do.”
That’s a good thing because the glitz was dialed down significantly, with few celebrities making the trek to Washington and a decidedly more earnest feel to the proceedings. News organizations that previously jockeyed for Hollywood A-listers instead invited more of their own rank-and-file reporters and producers. Some outlets, like HuffPost and CNN, nodded toward the future generation of the craft by filling tables with high school and college journalists.
Longtime attendees remarked how the vibe was different and more reminiscent of gatherings from decades past, before the ballroom was overrun by boldface names and selfie-snapping scribes. “I think it’s a great reset,” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan told HuffPost, noting that the dinner had evolved from its core focus of saluting journalism to “quite a bit of a celebrity night.’
“In the 12 years I’ve come to this dinner, I’m finally excited this is about the journalists who cover Washington and the White House and not about the celebrities,” said Thomas Burr, a correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune and recent National Press Club president.
Though some of the flashiest parties were canceled this year ― like the New Yorker’s Friday night soiree atop the W Hotel and the ultra-exclusive Vanity Fair-Bloomberg after-party ― there were still big late-night ragers, like the NBC News/ MSNBC post-dinner bash at the Organization of American States, and a slew of pre-parties and boozy brunches all over town.
Journalists also flocked to the Saturday afternoon taping of Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” which aired against the last hour of the actual dinner. And they were entertained at the dinner by Hasan Minhaj’s hilarious, and at times moving, roast of the president and the press.
But even as drinks flowed and trays of hor d’oeuvres passed by all weekend, broader existential questions were in the air.
“Just like in the campaign, there is so much that is unprecedented, stuff that we’ve never seen before and we’re trying to figure out what our role is and how we do it best,” said Terence Samuel, a veteran Washington Post editor. “This weekend has always been some kind of weird Rorschach test about who we are and what we do. It’s even more pronounced this year.”
What’s also unprecedented is that this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner didn’t include the White House.
A sitting president hasn’t skipped the dinner in decades, and it’s the first time in the event’s nearly century-long history that no one attended from the White House. President Donald Trump, who privately courts the media while recklessly attacking journalists publicly as the “enemy of the people,” decided not to attend Saturday because of what he considers unfair treatment.
Instead, Trump tried counter-programming the annual dinner by staging an event of his own in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and while in front of his faithful, unsurprisingly blasted the “fake news” media.
But as Trump dusted off familiar press-bashing lines at a campaign-style rally, the journalists who cover the presidency were rallying around the First Amendment back home.
RealClearPolitics dubbed its pre-dinner bash “A Toast to the First Amendment” and Washington editor Carl Cannon did just that while recalling how newspapers existed even before the presidency and published the Declaration of Independence. “The First Amendment is in the Constitution, but freedom of the press predates this country,” he said. “It’s an essential American trait that helped create the country, not the other way around.”
Of the First Amendment theme, Emily Goodin, the site’s managing editor, said that “in a time when there’s accusations of fake news and actual fake news that is about there, it’s good to reframe the focus on the quality journalism that so many organizations do and toast that.”
The First Amendment was everywhere in the Hilton Ballroom, from the banner onstage to the pins given out to all attendees. White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason even read the First Amendment during remarks in which he also pushed back against the president’s most heated anti-press rhetoric.
“We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations,” Mason said. “And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
Legendary reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein next recalled their dogged pursuit of the “best obtainable version of the truth” that led to breaking the Watergate scandal and taking down a corrupt presidency. Woodward also echoed Mason in telling Trump in absentia, “Mr. President, the media is not fake news.”
Such lines drew cheers, and at times standing ovations, from the journalists in attendance. But the real test of the solidarity evident in the room Saturday night will occur next time critical organizations get barred from a White House press briefing or if Trump’s Justice Department targets journalists for doing their jobs.
But for a few hours Saturday night, journalists seemed to take pride in reaffirming the virtues of journalism and mingling with colleagues even if the feel was more upscale office party than Oscar party.
“Perhaps this is one of the positive things Donald Trump has done,” Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn said. “He’s taken away a little glitz from what is supposed to be an evening commemorating and celebrating journalism.”
Corn said executives and advertisers have helped shift the event in recent decades to become “Hollywood on the Potomac,” resulting in many reporters, bookers and producers who do the work each day in newsrooms not getting inside the ballroom. If the dinner becomes “boring enough,” he said, “advertisers and executives won’t want to come back next year without celebrities.”
But next year might not be so boring. As HuffPost pointed out to Corn, Trump just told Reuters he would “absolutely” come in 2018.
“That’s the worst piece of news I’ve heard today,” he said.