White House correspondents dinner gets serious, in efforts for a reset

Singer Amanda Palmer raises her ukulele at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, on April 27, 2019.
Singer Amanda Palmer raises her ukulele at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, on April 27, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The annual black-tie White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) Dinner on April 27 raised eyebrows not just because it was the third time that President Donald Trump did not attend, it was also the first time in memory that the event saw no comedy.

Instead, the guest speaker was Pulitzer and National Book Award recipient Ron Chernow, a historian. His focus was on the history of journalism and the Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press.

The idea was to have a reset, to bring some gravitas back to an occasion that, to many, had become too extravagantly celebrity and entertainment oriented.

The dinner has long been criticised also as being too cosy, with star reporters in tuxedos and sequined gowns mingling with newsmakers and sources.

That a little more than half (58 per cent) of the public say news organisations do not understand people like them - according to a September 2018 Pew Research Centre survey - hardly helps.

"I think everyone intuitively knew that it (the dinner) was a terrible look for the press, given the disconnect between the contempt that so much of the country seems to have for Washington and the media here compared to the level of self-love and self-celebration that (the event) represents," Mr Mark Leibovich, author of the 2013 book on political Washington called "This Town", told the journal Politico.

Also, American political comedy and satire are cutting at the best of times.


But in 2018, against a backdrop of unprecedented political polarisation, the traditional roast of the President seemed to turn just plain nasty as comedian Michelle Wolf lacerated White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who sat stone-faced just a few seats away.

President Trump excoriated Ms Wolf. And while some sprang to her defence, the party's tone left a lingering distaste even among many who had attended.

That Mr Trump has not been attending has also somewhat undermined the convention that the President is the one the jokes are often aimed at - and he can aim some of his own. If the President is not present, it dilutes the point of the exercise.

Last week, the President, doubling down on his war with critical media, also apparently ordered members of his administration not to attend the dinner.

On the evening itself, he held a rally in Wisconsin where he, as is standard practice at his public rallies, sneered at the media. And he brought Ms Sanders on stage.

"Last year this night I was at a slightly different event," Ms Sanders said, where she had received "not quite the best welcome".

At the WHCA event, the refocus on the media, rather than on Mr Trump - who in fact has been a master of the art of playing the media - was welcomed by many.

WHCA President Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM, told the audience at the dinner: "I don't want to dwell on the President. This is not his dinner. It's ours, and it should stay ours."

At a pre-dinner reception on the evening of the event, Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, told USA Today that in the last two years the comedians had been "off-pitch".

"It's hard for a comedian to come in and do Washington - because we're not that funny," he said. "We may do some funny stuff, but we don't have a great sense of humour here sometimes."

Mr Steven Herman, White House Bureau Chief for Voice of America, told The Straits Times: "The correspondents' dinner over the years, while traditionally a fancy dress-up function, drifted far away from its core mission as a fundraiser for scholarships.

"It turned into a glitzy 'Oscars East' with all the trappings of red carpets, Hollywood stars and exclusive after-dinner invitation-only parties where nary a White House correspondent would be seen."

He added: "Obviously, Trump's three-year boycott of the event and the live televised scene last year of a comedian hurling personal insults at the White House press secretary, who was invited as the guest of honour at the head table, prompted some soul-searching by the correspondents' association.

"This year's dinner... by previous standards was relatively boring. But maybe that's a good thing."