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

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

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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.