Political News

Trump is skipping 'nerd prom' –– does it matter?

Posted March 11

As his tweets often do, President Donald Trump’s recent tweet announcing he won’t attend next month’s White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) Dinner has stirred up debate and prompted dozens of think pieces.

Many on the right and left feel the president’s absence will be a good thing, arguing the April 29 event has become too Hollywood-focused and made the press and president too cozy — amounting to “an unseemly love fest,” as one Boston Globe columnist called it.

But others feel that, despite its flaws, the annual dinner deserves Trump’s support because it provides scholarships and mentoring opportunities for young journalists and strengthens core American values.

Though the correspondents’ dinner has become a glitzy affair some now call “nerd prom,” it hasn’t always been a night where celebrities from George Clooney to Kim Kardashian posed for photo ops.

Past holdouts

First held in 1921, the event started as a modest awards banquet. The early dinners didn’t include comedians or celebrity guests but often featured a juggler or animal act as entertainment.

According to a statement by WHCA President Jeff Mason, the original purpose of the correspondents’ dinner remains the same: to “celebrate the First Amendment and the role an independent press plays in a healthy republic … reward some of the finest political reporting of the past year” and “support up-and-coming journalists who are the future of our profession.”

Yet, now the 3,000-person televised gala garners far more public attention, with each news organization supplying its own star-studded guest list.

In recent years, the WHCA invites a stand-up comic to poke fun at the president, and the president, who nearly always attends, performs his own self-deprecating comedy set.

Trump will be the first president to skip the correspondents’ dinner in over three decades.

Ronald Reagan missed the 1981 dinner, but as the National Journal points out, he had “a pretty unassailable excuse.” Reagan had been shot in an assassination attempt 26 days prior and was recovering at Camp David. Yet, he still managed to deliver his jokes over the phone, which were met with a standing ovation.

But Trump isn’t the only commander-in-chief to decline attending after expressing distaste for the press. Richard Nixon missed three dinners during his six years in office, and Jimmy Carter skipped two during his single term.

While Nixon and Carter each officially canceled due to illness or travel, The National Journal reported that their private memos and diaries reveal their true feelings toward the event.

After attending the 1971 dinner, Nixon sent a scathing memo to his staff, calling the reporters “disgusting,” the evening “three hours of pure boredom and insults” and insisting that “under no circumstances will I attend any more dinners of this type in the future.”

Carter explained in his diary his reasons for skipping the 1978 dinner, labeling White House correspondents “completely irresponsible and unnecessarily abusive.”

Trump's excuse

When the president first tweeted his regrets, many were quick to conclude he was afraid to attend after being badly burned at the 2011 correspondents’ dinner, when President Obama and comedian Seth Meyers attacked Trump’s hair, reality show, presidential aspirations and skepticism about Obama’s citizenship.

Trump, however, said in a recent “Fox & Friends” interview that he actually “loved that evening” and “had the greatest time.”

In the same interview, Trump traced his not attending the upcoming dinner to his longstanding tension with the media and accusations that many news outlets are dishonest and many stories fake. “I’m not a hypocrite. And I haven’t been treated properly,” he said.

“I believe a lot of the stories are pure fiction. They just pull it out of air,” he continued, concluding that “with all of that being said, I just thought it would be better if I didn’t do the dinner.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged this same conflict on ABC’s “This Week.”

“I think it’s … kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” Sanders told host George Stephanopoulos.

“One of the things we say in the South (is) ‘If a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her?’ I think that this is a pretty similar scenario. There’s no reason for him to go in and sit and pretend like this is going to be just another Saturday night,” Sanders said.

In response to Trump’s plans, WHCA President Mason told CNN the dinner will go on without the president and that his decision was not a surprise.

Should Trump attend?

Many — Republicans and Democrats alike — have applauded Trump’s refusal to take part in the WHCA dinner.

Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at National Review, told NPR’s Morning Edition that the correspondents’ dinner “has become sort of the epitome of the ‘celebrification’ of journalism and the haughtiness of the White House and that he’s “glad to see it taken down a notch” by the president’s response.

FrontPage Magazine said, “The dinner is against everything that President Trump stands for. And he's entirely right to skip it.”

Slate said, “Trump did the WHCA a favor” by skipping their “falsely chummy, nationally televised spectacle,” arguing it has long fostered unhealthy quid pro quo between the press and president.

“To whatever extent the White House Correspondents' Association and its members were depending on each president’s good will to lend his star power to their fundraising event, they were implicitly beholden to him. To whatever extent each president felt compelled to attend, even in times of war or crisis, it was because he had reason to hope that good will would be somehow repaid,” Slate noted.

Slate, Politico and U.S. News & World Report called on future presidents to boycott the dinner, suggesting their absence will allow room to reform the dinner and political journalism more broadly.

“Make the dinner not only a celebration of independent journalism, but the start of an ongoing discussion about the ways political journalists have failed in the past several years and how they can do better going forward. Make it about self-reflection, rather than self-aggrandizement,” U.S. News & World Report proposed.

Some suggest this reform has already begun, as evidenced by CNN announcing it will break with tradition and invite journalism students instead of celebrities as its dinner guests this year.

Does it have value?

Others acknowledge the correspondents’ dinner’s faults, but contend it’s still worthy of the president’s support.

In a Huffington Post article addressed to Trump, Turkish journalist and former WHCA dinner scholarship recipient Ilgin Yorulmaz said his decision sends journalists the wrong message.

She argued the dinner’s “sole purpose isn’t pompousness.” It also “offers much-needed scholarships to support journalism students across the country” and provides each student with “a mentor who guides him or her and offers career advice and counsel for a year.”

“I fear that this year’s scholars will find a White House hostile to them and their profession. … You need to have faith in my profession and trust my fellow journalists and I in our mission to tell the truth. And come to that dinner, of course,” she wrote.

The Week also argued in defense of the event, suggesting it reflects what’s best about our country.

“If you take a global perspective, the ritual of making the nation's head of state sit at a table and endure a roasting by a comedian — even if it is a gentle roasting — and not only have to take it, but smile and laugh throughout, is really quite extraordinary," the publication said. "The correspondents' dinner, in other words, displays some of the qualities that make America a truly exceptional nation: a democratic and egalitarian ethos that is lubricated by informality.”

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, David Litt, a former speechwriter who wrote Obama’s WHCA dinner monologues, insisted Trump was wrong to skip the dinner.

He conceded the event has become “gross” but said that “President Trump’s decision to skip this year’s event is a reminder that, for all its excesses, the correspondents’ dinner still matters.”

Litt also contended the tradition promotes democratic equality and humility: “the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military, the person with the nuclear codes, publicly submits to being teased."

Additionally, he said it allows opportunity for the president to reinforce government respect for the free press despite opposition, explaining that Obama would often close his jokes with several minutes of serious commentary on the topic.

“At its heart, the dinner is still a tribute to the values that make America great,” Litt said.

Email: lfields@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @lfieldsa

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