A series of unusual events: White House Correspondents Dinner 2017

In some ways, White House Correspondents Dinner weekend this year was not that different from the years under the Obama administration. Always a series of guest lists that highlight who-knows-who, Rent the Runway dress-up and gossipy party conversations between politicos and journalists, those qualities still marked the weekend.

But no one from the White House attended the series of parties and the celebrity guests were sparse to nonexistent. A few celebrities (like Rob Thomas) hit Capitol Hill early in the week moonlighting as lobbyists and Leonardo DiCaprio attended the Peoples Climate March on the same day, but these stars didn’t stick around for the dinner or parties.

The last year I went (2013), I saw Amy Poehler and Connie Britton at the pre-parties. I ran smack into How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor in the hallway at the Hilton. The stars of Game of Thrones and House of Cards also guested. This year, Hasan Minhaj is the headliner (who?).

But there was a new focus on the significance and freedom of the press this weekend that previous years’ partygoers might have taken for granted. Speeches at parties such as RealClearPolitics’ “A Toast to the First Amendment” highlighted the tension between the press and the administration. TBS comedian Samantha Bee hosted an event that benefited the Committee to Protect Journalists. White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason spoke out against charges of“fake news” at the dinner itself.

“I gotta be honest with you. I don’t know why anyone would become a journalist right now. It’s like being on the Titanic in this room,” special guest Will Ferrell said to the room at TBS’s taping of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. “The iceberg is coming, and you guys are hanging on to your journalistic integrity, playing the violin as the ship goes down.”

The press definitely took a victory lap this weekend, which could read as smug to some and necessary to others. My own position is summed up by the fact I returned to political journalism in D.C. this month after three years working in communications in Denver. Asked why (more like “WTF?”) at parties this weekend — D.C. has nothing on the mountains, after all — I said, “It’s an important time to work in journalism.”

Journalists were physically threatened during presidential campaigns last year, in an environment of hate encouraged by the current president. Some of my friends have been doxed — their personal information posted online with the intent to harass them — just for doing their jobs (reporting stories that not everyone likes). Fostering such a dangerous environment for the press sets a dangerous precedent for a free nation.

But the truth is, the event known as “nerd prom” missed an opportunity this weekend. Without a celebrity in the White House overshadowing it, journalists had a chance to be the big draw. But Hollywood and Silicon Valley steered clear at a time when the free press most needs support from heavy hitters.

WHCD might seem like a non-event to the average member of the public (even here in D.C.) and that’s because it hasn’t showcased media or respect for the First Amendment for years. WHCD has become more about the celebrities and the president than about the good and important work of asking questions and reporting facts.

This year, April 29 — the date of the official dinner — also corresponded to President Trump’s 100th day in office. The president declined to mark the occasion by attending a dinner to glorify journalists, a profession he has called “enemy of the people.”

Although it seems the president is making a clear statement about the press — one that resonated with a public that has little faith in the media — it wouldn’t be the first time his principles seemed variable or blurry.

After all, Trump told Reuters earlier this week he would come to WHCD in the future. “I would come next year, absolutely,” he said. But he mocked WHCD attendees and hedged that promise in his Pennsylvania rally speech the same day of the dinner. Future WHCD weekends may be very different — perhaps graced by the likes of Republican celebrities Kid Rock, Melissa Joan Hart and Clint Eastwood.

A free press doesn’t require the Executive Office to legitimize it and shouldn’t look to a president who continues to slam the “mainstream media” (whatever that is) as “fake news.”

So what do you think? Did journalists take back WHCD this weekend?

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