An annual Washington tradition best known for celebrity guests and a comedy routine by the president continued on Saturday with neither.
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner was held at the Washington Hilton in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood without President Donald Trump or the high-profile guests typically invited by news outlets that organize the event. Instead, this year’s dinner included guests like the high-school journalists who brought down their principal with a story on her faked credentials. (The kids were guests of HuffPost.)
Trump announced he was skipping the dinner in February, making him the first president in more than three decades to break the tradition. At the time, Trump and his administration were fiercely attacking reporters and media outlets. He described the media as “the enemy of the American people,” threatened to change libel laws so he can more easily sue news organizations, attacked the media for using unnamed sources in stories critical of his administration, and blocked certain outlets, including HuffPost, from attending press briefings.
This year’s correspondents’ dinner was a diminished affair compared with past events. Much of the star power typically drawn to the dinner was instead concentrated at an alternative event thrown by “Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair canceled the extravagant after-parties they typically hold. And Trump held a rally at the same time as the dinner, during which he again lashed out at the “fake news” media.
Sans celebrity guests, the dinner largely focused on celebrating the freedom of the press as well as the scholarships awarded by the White House Correspondents’ Association to aspiring journalists. Attendees received “First Amendment” pins to wear during the dinner.
Jeff Mason, president of the WHCA, opened the event by acknowledging the contrast with past dinners.
“Tonight looks a little different, but the values that underpin this dinner have not changed,” he said. “In fact, I think they’ve been reinforced. We are here to celebrate good journalism, we are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency.”
Mason also addressed the elephant in the room: the president’s frequently hostile attitude toward the press.
“We cannot ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do,” he 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. It is our job to report on facts and to hold leaders accountable. That is who we are. We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the famed former Washington Post journalists whose investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, also spoke at the dinner in a nod to the media’s role as a watchdog.
“Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there, period, especially now,” said Bernstein.
“Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” added Woodward. “Let’s take that off the table as we proceed.”
The dinner also featured a roast of the president delivered by “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj, a Muslim comedian who has condemned Trump’s anti-Muslim actions.
“No one wanted this gig, so of course it landed in the hands of an immigrant,” he joked.