It’s a good sign that I didn’t recognize anyone during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner broadcast until halfway through. In the previous eight years Hollywood celebrities parachuted into the nation’s capital to strut up a red carpet and mingle with various tuxedo-clad political barnacles. That kind of hobnobbing woefully gives hope to impressionable student council presidents that if they work very hard and spend six hours a day on LinkedIn, they too may one day sit at the cool kids’ table with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Fortunately that’s over now. Donald Trump, a man so intensely unlikable that satellites spontaneously redirect their orbits to avoid him, has rent asunder the unholy alliance between politicians and coolness. Celebrities skipped this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner to attend Samantha Bee’s rival Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner instead. The president refused to let journalists lob verbal tomatoes at him, so instead visited a rally in Pennsylvania to promote his ambitious agenda of getting more Americans to wear bright red hats.
Absent Hollywood big shots and White House carbuncles, journalists attending the dinner this year by default had to discuss journalism—and the ominous threat President Trump poses to it. Jeff Mason of Reuters said, “Freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy. Undermining that by seeking to delegitimize journalists is dangerous to a healthy republic.” Bob Woodward gathered applause with, “Mr. President, the media is not fake news.” And during his keynote address, Hasan Minhajs veered away from jokes to warn, “Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it.”
Usually the White House Correspondents Dinner looks like a cross between prom and a Comedy Central roast, but this time the enmity between the White House and the press manifested in some sober reflections on the Fourth Estate. Speakers celebrated the First Amendment, and warned of the menace which government might pose when it’s no longer run by a liberal philosopher king.
Journalists sounding the alarm about the president have a point—Donald Trump is America’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi. If he had an attention span greater than that of a cocker spaniel, I would be seriously worried about his threats to open libel laws. It’s unnerving that he expels syndicates from White House briefings when they displease him, and that he routinely lambasts the media as “fake news” and enemies of the American people.
That said, perhaps part of why Americans have such abysmally low opinions of the media in polls is that journalists keep describing themselves as objective, even-handed seekers of truth—they certainly styled the profession that way at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner.
In economics Public Choice Theory says that politicians have basic human impulses even after getting elected—they want to keep their jobs, they want to get invited to parties, and they want people to like them. They don’t turn into selfless Vulcans after they’re sworn in. Journalists aren’t magically exempt from the same cognitive bias or groupthink that effects all other humans (although a lot of them seem to think so.) Glenn Greenwald espouses a different school of thought: that journalists should try to be evenhanded, but also own up to their biases so that people can make informed assessments of their reporting.
This year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner looked less giddy than years past; more of a vocational awards ceremony than a nexus of pundits and starlets. In that capacity balance may have been restored to the Force. Donald Trump, loudmouth authoritarian though he is, kicks up mushroom clouds of hostility every time he interacts with reporters. So at least for now, journalists are antagonists to government—as they should be.
For more on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, watch below.
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