Trump’s Decision To Skip The White House Correspondents’ Dinner Sends Journalists The Wrong Message

Mr. President, if you really want to fix all of America's problems, you can't afford to alienate us.
I attended the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner last year with other scholars.  
I attended the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner last year with other scholars.  

President Donald Trump: I was pleased to see the measured tone in your address to Congress Tuesday night and your dedication to solving the problems of this country. But in order to do that and keep your promises to the American people, you’re going to need the press. Here’s why.

A year before you were inaugurated as president, I became a White House Correspondents’ Association scholar. Three months later, I attended the White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington.

Having arrived in the United States from Turkey the previous year to study at Columbia Journalism School, I watched then-President Barack Obama open the event by joking, “Good evening, everybody. It is an honor to be here at my last ― and perhaps the last ― White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”

Little did I know that Obama had correctly predicted what was to come after his second term as president ended, and what that would mean for those who had chosen to pursue my profession in this country.

In order to keep your promises to the American people, you’re going to need the press.

Knowing what I know today, just a little over a month into the new administration, I am disheartened by what this could mean for journalism in America going forward.

Your recent decision not to attend the dinner for no reason other than ― based on your distraught relationship with the press ― to boycott it, is an unfortunate one, to say the least.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner isn’t just a “nerd prom,” and its sole purpose isn’t pompousness. Yes, there is a lot of that, too, from what I gather from attending similar functions in my limited time here in the U.S. But it’s also meant to celebrate an institution that reaches well beyond extravagant galas in the District.

For one, the WHCA offers much-needed scholarships to support journalism students across the country. The grant goes towards their education, which it did in my case. Each student also gets matched with a mentor who guides him or her and offers career advice and counsel for a year.  

In addition to this, scholars are given access to key members of the presidential staff, including a chance to meet the White House press secretary, or his deputy, and receive a private audience with the president and the first lady.

For those already established in the White House press corps, the dinner may not hold too much weight beyond a chance to lighten the mood between mainstream media and the governing administration. But for scholars like me ― a journalist from abroad ― the dinner is tied to an association that enables those of us on the outside to get a glimpse of what that media relationship is like and use it to inform our careers. 

Our job as journalists in this country is to check executive power and ... rockiness in the relationship [between press and president] need not reach the level of hostility that we are at now for both sides to function.

I will never forget the excitement the scholars, all 18 of us, felt having had a word with Barack and Michelle Obama. For me and my eight fellow foreign scholars from countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, Pakistan, the Philippines, China and Ghana, the experience was especially valuable because we were able to witness American politics up close.   

The relationship between the press and the president in America has never been perfect, and it is not meant to be. But in our past year as scholars, we were able to understand that our job as journalists in this country is to check that executive power, and that in checking it, the rockiness in the relationship need not reach the level of hostility that we are at now for both sides to function.

In fact, the respect that each entity holds for one another even when at odds is what makes American democracy fascinating. Shaking hands with the president of the free world last year and being congratulated by him was thus an honor for journalists like me who value justice, integrity and press freedom. And the kind of unity and celebration among both groups when Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who had just been released from prison in Iran, came to the podium to speak at the event, was emblematic of that special ― though often times trying ― relationship.

President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House, Feb. 16, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House, Feb. 16, 2017.

But today, the awe I felt then is tainted.

I fear that this year’s scholars will find a White House hostile to them and their profession, and they certainly will not find a president to shake hands with, or get encouragement from. I wonder how they will even be treated by the press secretary, Sean Spicer, when, you, his boss, refuses to even come to dinner and meet them.

The hostility between your administration and media outlets reached a new height last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference when you once again called what you referred to as “fake” media “the enemy of the people.” The same day, the White House selectively barred from attending a press briefing correspondents of several media organizations, including The New York Times and Politico, whose correspondents I had met during the dinner last year.

I can, to a certain extent, sympathize with your frustration for being picked on so relentlessly by the aggressive Washington press corps.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t restrictions and access issues for press under the Obama administration. Yes, there was definitely a certain element of journalist control then resulting in frustration at times. But Eric Schultz, the former White House deputy press secretary and special assistant to President Obama, whom we met last year before the dinner, and his team members were always open and extremely responsive to my inquiries as a foreign journalist about not just the president, but also the Senate and the House. In fact, I was so surprised by their quick responsiveness that for the next six months, whenever I ran into a dead end with a source for any kind of story anywhere, my tagline was, “Accessing the White House for comment is so much easier than reaching you.” And it was true.

But media here in America isn’t perfect, and as we’ve no doubt seen and must acknowledge, fake news is a real problem. Likewise, biased news is not acceptable, either.

While here, I have noticed for instance that coverage of conflicts in my home country, Turkey, by many U.S. media outlets tend to have a slant and seem to stick to a certain angle. Whether it is the Kurdish issue or July’s failed coup d’etat, it is as if there is a bandwidth on what can be reported tied more to what the audience wants to hear and not reflective of the complexity and layers of the issues at hand.

U.S. media tend to offer a slanted and simplistic view of Turkey's conflicts, including in coverage of the July coup attempt.
U.S. media tend to offer a slanted and simplistic view of Turkey's conflicts, including in coverage of the July coup attempt. 

Dare I say then that I can, to a certain extent, sympathize with your frustration for being picked on so relentlessly by the aggressive Washington press corps.

But there is a difference between “fake news” as you, Mr. President, call it, and the unfavorable news I describe here, which starts to look like bias when there is too much of it from one side and less or none from the other. Banning news agencies or boycotting an event altogether isn’t the solution. Engaging in dialogue is.  

I have to admit that the tension was high even last year, with WHCA members speculating what the dinner may be like in a Trump presidency. But the latest ban on CNN and others last week forced the WHCA president, Jeff Mason of Reuters, to issue a stark statement like never before.    

The stakes are suddenly higher for me as both a Muslim and foreign journalist trying to work in the current climate given your rhetoric on Islam and your Muslim-focused travel ban.

Because I met the former President Obama so soon after becoming a journalism student in this country, my friends keep asking me jokingly if I will ever meet the new president, Donald Trump. The stakes are suddenly higher for me one year later as both a Muslim and foreign journalist trying to work in the current climate given your rhetoric on Islam and your Muslim-focused travel ban.

I still have hope that things can turn around and that scholars like me in the future can be rewarded with the same experiences. Your optimistic speech Tuesday and your genuine effort to reach across to put aside “trivial fights” might be the vital sign that we journalists may all be looking for in the future. But for this to happen, we need your empathy. 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.

If you don’t, it will be a sad reminder, especially for those in other countries looking to go into the journalism profession, that the ability, “to ask questions of government officials, push for transparency from the presidency ... and hold the powerful to account,” as Jeff Mason said in a recent WHCA statement, is fragile even in the most advanced democracy in the world. And statements like that don’t sound like solving the totality of a country’s problems. 

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White House Correspondents' Dinner 2016
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