The 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner should be the last.
It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun.
But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.
Trust in the mainstream media is low, a new populism has caught fire all over the Western world, and President Donald Trump constantly pounds the news media as a bunch of out-of-touch elites who don’t represent the interests of real Americans.
The annual dinner — or at least the optics of the dinner — seems to back him up.
And while Trump rarely sets a good example for anyone, his decision to hold a campaign-style rally in Michigan on Saturday night might be an exception.
He got to look like a man of the people, a guy who talks the language of autoworkers and waitresses.
Journalists — whose purported mission is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” — were meanwhile partying with their sources at the Washington Hilton.
And Trump was more than happy to disparage them, just as he did when he declined the invitation to attend.
“Why would I want to be stuck in a room with a bunch of fake news liberals who hate me?” he asked in an email invitation to his supporters.
He said he would much rather “spend the evening with my favorite deplorables who love our movement and love America.”
The reality is something quite different.
Journalists do not present false stories. When they get something wrong, they correct it.
They do their best to be impartial, and — contrary to what the president told his supporters — they aren’t out to get him but to merely cover him. They are not the opposition party.
They are simply trying to do their jobs of informing the public, a job often made difficult by the obfuscation from the briefing room podium and the president’s own lies.
As for Trump’s touted allegiance to working-class values, solid reporting has shown that many of his policies and actions favor the rich (and his own business interests).
Journalists are trying to keep his administration and the Congress accountable to citizens. And the job of White House correspondent may be tougher than ever.
“What was once one of the most prestigious gigs in journalism has become a daily slog” now that there’s no downtime in the Trump era, wrote Michael Calderone of Politico.
But far from highlighting that hard work, this annual event sends the opposite message. And it encourages an unfortunate, false impression that the president loves to cultivate.
The White House Correspondents’ Association no doubt has good intentions. Its annual dinner is meant to recognize excellent reporting and raise money for scholarships.
“Our dinner honors the First Amendment and strong, independent journalism,” the organization’s president, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, said as she announced Michelle Wolf, this year’s main entertainer, praising the comic’s Pennsylvania roots and her “truth-to-power” style.
But this event sure doesn’t look like truth to power.
Its defenders say that it’s perfectly all right to have “just one night” to enjoy a break from the supposedly adversarial relationship between government and press. But that relationship isn’t always as arms-length as it should be in a town noted for its mutual back-scratching.
Talev and her cohort certainly are dedicated reporters and editors. But this festive night, always unseemly, is now downright counterproductive to good journalism’s goals. It only serves to reinforce the views of those who already hate the media elite.
By Sunday morning, Fox News chief national correspondent Ed Henry was even calling for the WHCA to apologize to Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was in the audience as Wolf skewered her: “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
A mini-dustup, at most, but more bad optics for the mainstream press — which doesn’t need them.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight,” tweeted Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent of the New York Times. (The Times, for the most part, has not attended the event in recent years.)
Happily, the dinner may be fizzling out of its own accord. In previous years, the buzz has been palpable, with the glitterati arriving for a five-day celebration, bringing a sense of that rarest of all things: glamour in Washington. Last year and this year, it felt downright subdued.
Can’t the correspondents’ association come up with better ways to do its good work, ways that show journalists at their best?
That they are in the trenches digging out the truth.
Not schmoozing in the swamp while the president hustles the heartland.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.