It was a night to remember -- unfortunately. The moment of journalism’s greatest embarrassment kept its standing as a night the media love, but the nation finds creepy. This year, it needed help from foul-mouthed anti-Trumper Samantha Bee and the press itself to do it.
Journalists who campaigned against President Trump both before and after the election questioned the need for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year. Trump helped burn the script by refusing to attend and TBS’ theoretical comedian held a counter event the elite flocked to. NBC said Bee’s “Not The White House Correspondents Dinner” “upstaged” the traditional event.
That was easy. “Nerd prom,” as it is called inside the Beltway, became a minor event on its own night. It headlined two ancient news icons who helped take down a president more than 40 years ago. The comic host devoted most of his stand-up to attacking the president, who was elsewhere and making a series of Nazi, Holocaust and N-word jokes that were more hate than humor.
Journalists and Hollywood listened to the buzz and chose to see Bee’s harder-edged attack on the president and his supporters. Guardian columnist Lucia Graves correctly characterized the Samantha Bee event as “a fancy protest, but it's still very much a protest.”
Trump took a different tactic, holding a campaign-style event in Pennsylvania that let the media have it with both barrels. The president’s special assistant Cliff Sims emphasized the contrast. “While the DC elite don their black ties and ballgowns, @POTUS will be with the People in Penn.” Vice President Mike Pence started it off to a roaring crowd telling them, “America is back.”
Trump slapped the media hard, as always: “A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now,” said Trump, with huge crowd support. He noted that the D.C. event was “without the president” to large cheers. When he mentioned the media covering his rally, the crowd booed them.
Trump continued to slam the media. “Media outlets like MSNBC and CNN are fake news.” He gave journalists a harsh assessment. “Let’s rate the media’s 100 days because, as you know, they are in disgrace.” He added, “The media deserves a very big, fat failing grade.”
The Correspondents’ Dinner had become an embarrassment -- an event the media obsessed about. Top journalists rubbed elbows with actors and actresses, major donors and prominent politicians -- the very people they are supposed to report on the rest of the year.
ABC News said it was, “typically one of Washington’s hottest events,” like that’s a good thing. It even involved a red carpet photo spot just like Hollywood award shows. This year, CBS’ “resident cartoonist” Liza Donnelly was “live-drawing” the event and Politico ran a “White House Correspondents Dinner party guide.” The Hill cautioned about the 2017 dinner and its “weirdness” factor. Where was that comment every other year?
The war between the press and Trump meant several press figures wanted to either skip the dinner or cancel it entirely. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan was one who wanted it over, saying it was time to “stick a silver-plated fork in it.” Bear in mind, Trump had even been booed by the press at the event way back in 2011. Now that he won, it was time to cancel the event in the eyes of the “neutral” press.
Trump’s absence took the air out of the annual event that had always included jokes at both the presidents’ and media’s expense. Bee seized on it to hold a publicly anti-Trump event that was, allegedly, pro-free press -- “dirty words and all.” It drew a star-studded crowd, including “Alysia Reiner of ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Retta of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and Matt Walsh of ‘Veep’” according to NBC. They were joined by numerous CNN staffers such as Don Lemon, Jake Tapper, “Dana Bash, Jim Acosta and Brianna Keilar.” Add to it, political types like Valerie Jarrett, and Black Lives Matter spokesman Deray McKesson. The after party featured Elvis Costello.
It was exactly the kind of event ordinary Americans despise.
Bee’s “party for the press” featured comedian Will Ferrell, who appeared as George W. Bush, mocking Trump, of course. “For the longest time I was considered the worst president of all time — that has changed,” Ferrell told an applauding audience, according to Hollywood Reporter. “I needed eight years, a catastrophic flood, a war built on a lie and an economic disaster. The new guy only needed a hundred days.”
Bee showed how Democrats and journalists (occasionally those aren’t the same) can’t get over Hillary Clinton losing. Vulture.com wrote up her concluding segment: “Samantha Bee closed out her “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” with a bang at the DAR Constitution Hall on Saturday. Taking a page out of “The Man in the High Castle’s” playbook, Bee ended her special by imagining a world where Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, was elected president of the United States.” As part of tying the left and the press closer, the event’s swag bag included “free press” T-shirts.
All this came at a very bad time for journalists -- after years of layoffs and declining status. Now, journalism is unpopular as a profession and with the public. “Broadcaster is the second worst job of the year, and newspaper reporter takes the top spot,” according to Career Cast.
A recent poll doesn’t make it look any brighter in the eyes of the audience. “In the new poll, roughly half (51 percent) of Americans said the national political media ‘is out of touch with everyday Americans,’ compared with 28 percent who said it ‘understand the issues everyday Americans are facing,’” according to the Morning Consult.
D.C.’s elite journalists, outfitted in the night’s fancy dresses and black-tie outfits, seemed a throwback to yesteryear when they controlled the levers of American society.
A Dinner Conservatives Had A Hard Time Swallowing
Journalists long loved the Correspondents’ Dinner. It gave them a chance to celebrate Democratic presidents and openly attack Republican ones. That was before 2017. The Trump-era news media don’t hide their contempt for conservatives. The previous comedy lineup was usually openly hostile to the right -- Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Larry Wilmore, for example.
This year was worse. The Hollywood Reporter even had a comedy writer create a phony speech for Trump had he attended the event. Danny Zuker, a writer-producer on ABC's comedy “Modern Family,” uncovered “the remarks that might have been if POTUS hadn't decided to sit this one out.”
He joked about “The failing New York Times,” “a record for attendance,” launching missiles into Iraq or Syria and making fun of Trump’s marriage. “You're monsters. You're worse than ISIS. Sean Spicer says you're worse than Hitler. Kill yourselves,” he concluded as Trump.
This year’s dinner was in the identical vein. It featured the pair of journalists who took down a previous Republican president -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- an unsubtle statement by the supposedly neutral press. It included a video clip from actor Alec Baldwin impersonating Trump, telling them to “Keep up the good work.” And “The Daily Show’s” Hasan Minhaj was the comic relief -- yet another wild, left-wing voice.
Minhaj opened up joking about the “series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” “We gotta address the elephant who’s not in this room,” “he is in Pennsylvania because he can't take a joke.” He then proceeded to work his way through the administration (House Slytherin) underlining why Republicans should consider whether to ever attend in the future.
He went after Trump (Russia jokes, tan jokes, the “Orange Man behind the Muslim ban”), Betsy DeVos (rich joke), Steve Bannon (Nazi joke), Rick Perry (IQ joke), Mike Pence (afraid of women joke), Jeff Sessions (Confederate joke, N-word joke), Sean Spicer (Holocaust joke) and Fox News (Bill O’Reilly jokes that got applause, Jesse Watters jokes, Muslim jokes).
He made some other press jokes with USA Today, MSNBC and CNN all targets to more softball mockery. Then he went on a riff comparing journalists to minorities. He was periodically serious, “Do I come up here and try to fit in? Not ruffle any feathers? Or do I say how I really feel?” He did, endlessly bashing the administration while claiming he was asked not to do so.
Minhaj made his mark during the Radio Television Correspondents Association Dinner with an incredible comment: “What we saw in Orlando was one of the ugliest cocktails of the problems that we still see here in America, a cocktail of homophobia, xenophobia, lack of access to mental health care, and sheer lack of political will....Is this what you [Congress] want your legacy to be?...That you were complicit in the deaths of thousands of Americans?”
He followed the equally liberal Larry Wilmore who hosted in 2016. Yet journalists pretended they were surprised Trump didn’t attend.
Nevertheless, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason shouted into the wilderness at this year’s event: “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
The 35 percent of Americans who are conservative have their doubts.
An Anti-Trump Event The Media Love
Samantha Bee has become one of the popular faces of what liberals call “The Resistance” to Trump. Her show is a weekly tirade against all things Trump. And that has become the foundation for her celebrity.
Hollywood lined up to promote her event or to attend. Fellow TBS comedian Conan O'Brien pumped it up as a Bee vs. Trump gathering. “Tomorrow on TBS, @realDonaldTrump faces his greatest nightmare: a funny female immigrant with a brain.”
He oversold Bee a bit. Her “humor” is often filled with jokes about the female anatomy. Bee, whose schtick is a trashy anti-Trumpism, advertised the event with this: “Tonight’s episode is a repeat so we can care for our vaginas, but don’t forget to tune in to #NotTheWHCD on Saturday!” Naturally, Hollywood and DC media love her.
Dan Gainor is the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently about media for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.