Long before we all had Twitter or Comedy Central to remind us that politics and comedy make a great cocktail, there was the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. But President Donald Trump announced over the weekend that he would be skipping the formal affair, being the first sitting president to skip the dinner in 36 years, which sort of throws all the planning for the event up in the air. But as they say in show business and any media that covers it: The show will go on. Even without Trump, it will be an event to keep an eye on. So, who’s hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year and will it be as worth watching as it has been in recent years?
No one has any idea yet, not even the White House Correspondents’ Association, which hosts the event. To be fair, the dinner isn’t until April 29, and not even Donald Trump’s administration knew who would headline his inauguration a month in advance. There’s time yet to find someone. As of late February, though, no one has accepted the gig.
In recent years, a comedian has hosted the event, with the president taking to the podium to roast the media shortly thereafter. President Obama was particularly skillful in this regard, as was Ronald Reagan. The press and the presidency have a special kind of love-hate relationship, and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was always a place for the two entities to meet head on, break some bread (and down a lot of cocktails), and pretend that power and the press were actually working together in some regard, which they usually are. Hey, the press is the fourth estate for good reason.
With the advent of cable news and social media, the “Nerd Prom,” as some have lovingly dubbed it, has become one of Those Events, but the dinner has actually been held as far back as the early 1900s, when the White House invited journalists to have an off-the-record dinner and just hang out. Like many formal events that the president attends, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner isn’t just fun and games. It’s also about charity and the White House Correspondents’ Association now sells tables for college scholarships.
As mentioned, Trump has made it clear that he won’t be attending this year. He has also tweeted and expressed through his spokespeople that he doesn’t believe the media is portraying him fairly. Those same news organizations — the ones in Trump’s sights — are also considering not attending the dinner this year.
That’s a shame. If any news organization decides not to go, they still might want to consider donating to the White House Correspondents’ Association anyway, so that the organization can carry on supporting journalism students. In other words, while many aren’t exactly keen on the whole event to begin with, the media’s absence only hurts the fundraiser. (And Trump’s absence makes him look like a curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to navigate D.C. social culture, but that’s another discussion for another day.)
That the president is boycotting the dinner shows that he only sees the event as a chance to be mildly roasted by a mainstream comedian. Trump attended the dinner before and was mocked by then President Barack Obama, right around the time that Trump was leading the birther movement. If anything, Trump skipping the dinner is evidence that he’s not capable of accepting constructive, or comedic, criticism. It’s also a sign to some media organizations that the White House doesn’t want to meet them face to face, for whatever reason.
It’s clear that Trump doesn’t like to be mocked in public (as evidenced by his response to innocent chiding at previous White House Correspondents’ Dinners or even on Saturday Night Live), but sitting out the iconic press dinner is a big move on the new president’s behalf, as it sends a strong message from the administration to the media. Not attending the dinner might be a good move to protect his personal image, but not a good move as a sitting president.
With Trump backing out of the dinner, it might be hard to find someone to host the event. But journalists should go all the same, if only to take part in the fundraising aspect — and perhaps to show the White House that the media isn’t an enemy and will have its own fun without him.