The Elephant in the Dining Room: Washington’s Media Elite Celebrate, Awkwardly, Without the President They Helped Create

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Hasan Minhaj delivered a brilliant set at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner, where President Trump's absence defined the entire evening

Nearly every minute of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was laced with desperation. Saturday night at the Washington Hilton, the journalists that comprise the White House Correspondents’ Association gathered to celebrate their industry — or more accurately, to defend it.

President Donald Trump, who is alternately both combative with and ingratiating to the press, became the first president in 36 years to not attend the annual dinner. (The last was President Ronald Reagan, who was recovering from a bullet wound sustained weeks earlier. He still called in to crack a joke or two.) Trump has the habit of calling the mainstream media “fake news,” “failing,” or the “enemy” of the American people — and at the same time, has proven to be incredibly sensitive to, and swayed by, press coverage of himself and his closest advisors.

Trump’s boycott of the night read as another example of his typical childish impetuosity — especially given that the jokes made about him by Seth Meyers at the WHCD in 2011 reportedly so injured his sensibilities that it seeded his run for president. In attempting to combat Trump’s repudiation of the press, the WHCA put on a dinner that awkwardly kept trying to prove its own relevance.

After all, the media has a similarly love-hate relationship with Trump — a personality who has provided the political press with endless material and similarly endless angst. Discussion and portrayal of Trump has goosed ratings and boosted circulation for all sorts of media entities — and for that reason, providing wall-to-wall coverage of his rhetoric, no matter how hateful, became increasingly commonplace during the election and are now part and parcel of every media organization’s national news coverage. Despite their respective ideologies, the media and Trump are in a toxic, fruitful, mutually reinforcing and mutually destructive relationship. This fundamental truth made the overtures to ideological purity from both pulpits feel frustratingly evasive. For Trump, it was another rally in Pennsylvania, and back to repeating the canard about making America great again (already? always? How long are we waiting for this to happen?). For the WHCA, it was reading the first amendment out loud — and trotting out Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose joint reporting brought down President Nixon’s presidency in 1974. No matter how much you believe in the ideas of Trump or the media — and personally, I’m a big fan of the first amendment — it was hard to not read this posturing as heavy-handed self-importance.

On the other hand, at least the WHCD has the good sense to call in comedians. And intriguingly, “fake journalist” Hasan Minhaj (a senior correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” and one of that show’s consistent highlights) articulated most succinctly what seems to be wrong with American discourse, via cracking jokes about how he was likely to be downgraded from American citizen to a series of numbers any minute now.

“We are living in a strange time where trust is more important than truth,” he pointed out near the end of his set, to a room that responded tepidly at best to his humor. He made jabs at CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, USA Today, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, calling them out for their specific hypocrises and panderings.

Taking swipes at the media is part of the WHCD’s comedian’s role. But Minhaj seemed to be much more critical of the media as a whole than any guest since Stephen Colbert’s 2006 speech during George W. Bush’s presidency — a speech delivered entirely in character that mercilessly mocked the contours of contemporary punditry.

Minhaj, like Colbert, rejected the hobnobbing of the evening for a sharper critique of the amassed establishment. Except where Colbert did it with satire, Minhaj did it with sincerity — discussing with warmth what the first amendment means, in a pivot away from jokes for the last few minutes of his set. “Only in America can a first-generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president,” he said. “It’s this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the first amendment.”

But the president didn’t show up. “The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it,” Minhaj said. “In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner.”

“I’m proud that all of us are out here to defend that right… even when the man in the White House never would.”

A cushier relationship between presidents and the press means, often, a softer and fuzzier comedy set. The friction between the press and the WHCD set the stage for a far more interesting — and far more hilarious! — unifying critique of both. In an era where “free speech” has again become a politically charged phrase, it was nice to not just celebrate it, but see it in glorious, messy action.

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  1. I do trust all the concepts you have presented for your post.
    They’re really convincing and will definitely work.
    Still, the posts are too short for novices. Could you please prolong
    them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

  2. test says:

    I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This piee of writing postyed at tbis website is genuinely good.

  3. mjweir0317 says:

    The press should have skipped this event this year and taken the time to figure out how they elected this horror show by their constant quest for eyeballs. Of course, it’s a win-win for their big corporate owners. They got the money from the people too clueless to turn off the AllTrump AlltheTime and now they are getting every little perk their heart desires from no regulations to huge tax breaks and rock bottom wages. I mean how can they lose? They know that most people just aren’t smart enough to vote in their own best interest. And they wave a shiny object every time to distract them.

  4. udpert says:

    It’s not about the first amendment. It’s about journalistic integrity. Trump does not oppose the first, but he would like to see more of the second.

  5. Dirk says:

    Jeez, what I saw was terrible. So, obviously, I didn’t see much. What a waste of time.

  6. Timely Comment says:

    Trumpeteers in the comments are a lot funnier than the WHCD!

    (Well, I did like “CJ”.)

  7. mcgwynne says:

    I watched as much as I could but words kept coming to my mind like: desperation, unfunny, boring, pathetic, awkward, boring again, mean-spirited, petulant and mostly WHY?
    Why did anyone think it was a good idea to hire a wannabe “comedian'” created by the very media he was supposed to entertain when the person who was supposed to be the “Roastee” wisely decided to avoid such amateur and childish shenanigans? It was like watching high school students attemp humor st the teachers expense. Painful. And dragging Woodward and Bernstein out like some beloved puppets of their childhood was beneath contempt for themselves and an unwitting and stunned audience. I couldn’t tear my eyes away as I watched the strained laughter and wondered how many tuxedos and gowned souls were trying to find the exit but too overwhelmed by guilt that the cameras would see the mass exodus.
    Bug-eyed and shrieking hysterically the so-called funny guy elicited nothing but pity. Could this be the end of the once proud and truly Democratic Party of the people or the awkward birthing of an awakening? You be the judge.

  8. Sam says:

    Wow the media still hasn’t figured out this pres. is NOT a politician.
    Every publication writes ONLY negative headlines, negative stories about this pres.
    And the media keeps trying to explain why they lost. something everybody knows.
    Where is the negative headline and
    story about……
    Ca gov jerry brown BUYING a vote for 400m dollars of public money in order to pass an archaic gas tax that will add 15 cents for every gallon sold in ca,
    intended for the roads, however added to the current gas tax being paid that was also intended for roads
    but was stolen.

    • Frank says:

      Selling votes is the only reason to be a government official.
      Donate to the former pres and buy a judge position.
      Take money for a campaign and win a
      job living off of the public for the entire career. Meanwhile make millions selling votes.
      It’s welfare for the rulers.
      The last pres. leaves office with millions, yet keeps 400,000 for a current speach instead of donating it to a fund to build the border wall,
      Something any top 5 megabillionaires
      could pay for 20 times over and start building immediately, their billions made off of the country the refuse to help protect.

  9. Alex says:

    Here’s proof the MSM just wants to be around A-List stars and politicos. This has gone from a dignified dinner to a star studded roast, and the guy they wanted to slap around the most told them to shove it. Maybe next year instead of a D-List comic as host, they get someone with class. Instead of a roast they should try some light humor and dignity, not how many celebs you can get at your table.

    Leave the lame weak jokes to Sammy Bee and the has-beens she puts on her unfunny show that are begging for attention.

  10. Gdowney says:

    It appears Hasan Minihaj is Looking For Comedy in a Judaic-Christian World

  11. Sooooo, with no, zero, zilch major MSM TV coverage for this anti-Trump White House Correspondents’ Dinner the effin corporate TV media prevented the vast majority of Americans from seeing that the sociopathic megalomaniac faux-EMEROR that the TV MSM media gave over THREE BILLION $ FREE NATIONAL TV COVERAGE to get elected, prevented and actively CENSORED ANY COVERAGE of Trump being seen at all by the Americans that were effed up the arse by what should honestly be called the ‘media/propaganda-sector’ of the Disguised Global Capitalist EMPIRE that has ‘captured’, controls, and now almost fully “Occupies” our former country as its nominal global HQ, and merely ‘poses’ as a democratic coutry.

    WOW, What an effing big kick in the arse from the Corporate MSM And the Rich Pricks that run the effin phony BS film/propaganda sector of the exact same EMPIRE.

    wakeTF-up people you are being screwed both ways by BOTH of the dual-party Vichy-political phony parties, and the MSM, corporate, financial, militarist, media/propaganda, extra-legal, CFR Think-Tanks, and the ‘rougher-talking’ neocon ‘D’ Vichy Party AND the ‘smoother-lying’ neoliberal-con ‘D’ Vichy Party of the EXACT SAME EMPIRE!

  12. Skyking says:

    The children behaved as children do when dats are out for the evening. No sitter to watch them, so they strutted and posed like they really were grown up. They made little inside jokes and twittered (dare I say “twittered”)? Altogether, they had fun and tomorrow they don’t have to go to work or to daycare. Fabulous!

  13. dollface says:

    Why would any sane person show up at a party where everyone would treat you in a sadistic way because they despise you and gossip and lie about you 24/7? They wouldn’t.

  14. Steve Barr says:

    Sonia you are so right. Donald Trump is a monster and the media helped create him and they still can’t take responsibility for what they have unleashed on our country . Trump didn’t go to the dinner because deep down like all bullies he’s a coward and that rally in Pennsylvania looked like an outtake from Triumph of the Will .

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