This past Monday, the White House Correspondents’ Association announced it would be departing from its usual tradition of inviting a comedian to roast the president and the press corps at next year’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Instead, in a controversial decision, the organization has invited renowned historian Ron Chernow to deliver a speech on First Amendment rights and freedom of the press. Though these topics are certainly relevant to today’s volatile political climate and the strained relationship between the media and the President Donald Trump’s administration, the WHCA’s decision to stray from a decades old tradition ultimately compromises the very principles upon which the association was founded.
There are plenty of reasons why the WHCA should continue to host comedians at its annual dinner, but let’s first start with the obvious—the comedy roast is literally the only notable part of the event.
The annual White House Correspondents’ dinner is an ornate black-tie spectacle during which journalists and politicians get to schmooze with A-list Hollywood celebrities and athletes. For many of us, the event is simply a reminder of the stark divide between the elite and regular, everyday Americans. But for a mere 20 minutes or so, the unforgiving comedy roast reminds us that the rich and powerful are human, and they are not invincible. From the late Steve Bridges’ uncanny George W. Bush impression to Seth Meyers’s relentless mocking of then-candidate Trump’s “birther” controversy, America’s most beloved comedians have shown us even presidents and billionaires are not immune to the sting of satire.
Though public regard for the dinner is sure to dwindle following the WHCA’s recent deviation from tradition, perhaps the greatest fallout from this decision is the press’ symbolic gesture of submission to the Trump administration.
It is a dangerous time for the media. Since his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has demonstrated his inability to coexist peacefully with journalists who criticize the current administration. Not only has he publicly denounced major news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, severely compromising public trust in the media, but our president has gone as far as to threaten to eradicate press briefings entirely. Time and time again, he has shown a blatant disregard for the principles that are not only foundational to our nation’s Constitution but also essential to the preservation of a healthy democracy.
The WHCA was established in response to a growing fear regarding a lack of independence between the White House press corps and the government itself. The WHCA is an independent organization, and its annual dinner is meant to be a celebration of the freedom of speech and the press.
Virtually every president has issues with the press, but Trump’s tense relations with the media are unparalleled. Since the start of his term, Trump has skipped both WHCDs, making him the first president in 36 years who has not attended the event. Hasan Minhaj put it bluntly in his 2017 WHCD roast when he acknowledged Trump’s absence, stating “I think he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”
Historically, the president has been a centerpiece of the dinner. His presence represents an important and foundational principle in this nation: The government will protect journalistic integrity and refrain from scrutiny or interference. In refusing to attend the event, Trump is not only breaking a decades-old tradition, but he is solidifying this administration’s continual unwillingness to respect an independent, free media.
At the center of this contentious decision to substitute a comedy roast for a history lesson is comedian Michelle Wolf who drew criticism for her controversial routine at the 2018 dinner. Despite Trump’s two-year-long boycott of the event, the WHCA’s recent announcement has prompted the president to reconsider, tweeting, “Good first step in comeback of a dying evening and tradition! Maybe I will go?”
The fact that the WHCA, an organization comprised of well-educated and experienced writers, cannot see the irony in its recent decision to forgo the comedy roast is a bit jarring. The WHCA may think by eradicating a controversial part of its annual dinner, it is mending a strained relationship with the current administration, but it is not. Getting rid of a long-held and important tradition simply to appease a president who “can’t take a joke” is not a compromise; it is a concession, and we should all be concerned.
This is not the time to bow down to Trump’s demands. Now more than ever, it is essential that the press maintain their integrity and independence. The WHCD’s comedy roast may seem like a trivial concession in the grand scheme of things, but it is reflective of an important and growing threat to our nation’s First Amendment. The press cannot allow intimidation from the government to influence their actions, no matter how insignificant.
If the president of the United States won’t attend a dinner because he “can’t take a joke,” so be it. Carry on with the jokes.
Amanda Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org