WASHINGTON — The White House Correspondents’ Association deviated from tradition for this Saturday’s annual dinner at the Washington Hilton. Instead of featuring a comedian as in past years, historian Ron Chernow will host the star-studded gala.
President Donald Trump declined an invitation, as he has done in years past, but the White House also is urging other members of the administration not to attend.
It’s also taking place in the midst of a congressional recess, meaning that many elected officials will still be back in their districts, not mingling among one of the Beltway’s biggest social events of the year.
But Olivier Knox, the president of the WHCA and SiriusXM’s chief Washington correspondent, says that this year’s dinner is still sold out. In fact, Knox says he’s had to refund tickets for tables because space is at capacity — even if the tone of the evening will be quite a contrast to years past, when it seemed as if much of Hollywood uprooted itself to cram into the cavernous ballroom. Last year, comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a biting, anti-Trump monologue that had some members calling for an overhaul of the event.
In Knox’s eyes, the dinner was “due for a reset” for some time, focused much more on the “serious side of the profession” and the First Amendment at a time when journalists are under attack around the globe and in the U.S. Knox says he’s gotten death threats related to his role at the WHCA, including one just this week.
Knox talked to Variety about why the dinner was due for a “reset” and why he’s not at all surprised that the president chose to skip it.
Did you set out to change the format in not having a comedian host?
That is exactly how I started out. When I ran for this position in the spring of 2016, I sat down and took stock of the dinner at the time, and decided that really needed to retake it for journalists and journalism and the First Amendment. It had become the kind of event where you were more likely to run into a sitcom star than a sound engineer, and I didn’t think that was very healthy. So when I ran I told people, ‘Listen, I think the dinner is due for a reset.’ I think we should put the focus on the more serious side of the profession. There’s precedent for not having a comic. It usually means a musical act — Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin. But in this case, I wanted to put this very difficult moment in time in the context of history. I thought Ron Chernow would be the person to do that. He is a very lively writer. He is a good speaker, and it did not escape my notice that he was very critical of Donald Trump in 2016, so I thought that whatever else I was accused of, I wouldn’t be accused of muting the criticism of this president.
Do you have any idea what he is going to talk about?
I have no idea. I have made it my business not to interfere with Ron Chernow’s speech. I have only told him 15 to 20 minutes, smart and lively. I have not had any other input into the content of his remarks.
Was it difficult convincing other board members to make the change?
The job of recruiting the entertainer for the annual dinner is solely the [WHCA] president’s. I didn’t need anyone’s approval. I did flag my decision for my vice president and his successor. … It was not really a question of getting things through. In terms of the reception, a lot of people said a lot of nice things and a lot of people said a lot of terrible things. Which is to be expected. This really only reaffirmed my decision to retake this dinner. It’s our. It’s not some other organization’s. It’s not the government’s. It’s not the president’s. It is a dinner celebrating the First Amendment.
Did it surprise you that the President decided not to come this year?
I guess if you had a Hubble Telescope that detected surprise, you wouldn’t detect it on me. This is the least surprising piece of information about this dinner so far. He has signaled his distaste for the entire event, to say nothing of the news media. So it would have been curious if he had decided to attend the dinner that after all celebrates the men and women who are working very hard to help hold him to account.
What else can we expect from the evening?
My remarks will be in part critical of the president, and we can expect a fairly heavy focus on a freelancer named Austin Tice. American freelancer who was abducted [in Syria] in the summer of 2012. I interviewed his parents, Marc and Debra Tice, on my show on SiriusXM a couple months ago, and they circled back around and said, ‘Listen, it would mean a lot to us if you would highlight Austin’s plight. We believe that this kind of attention could help him get released.’ And so we will have an Austin Tice banner. We will have free Austin Tice pins, and I will be quoting from his parents at some length in my remarks.
If you look at global trends in press freedom, it is hard not to come away a little discouraged. Reporters in prison. Reporters attacked. In this country reporters maligned by the most powerful institution in American life.
One of the big issues for the WHCA has been the decline in the daily press briefing. [It has been 44 days since the last one]. Have you gotten any explanation from the White House, or any indication on when this may return?
What I would tell your audience is it is not just the White House briefing. It is the Pentagon briefing. It is the State Department briefing. It is a systematic clawing back of what used to be public information by this administration. It is really not just what happened in the James Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing. It is a much broader problem than that. I have of course pushed the White House to resume what used to be daily or near daily briefings. It is something of an open secret that these briefings became somewhat of an albatross around successive press secretary’s necks because they ultimately have an audience of one, which is the president of the United States. When he says, ‘Don’t do the briefing. I am my own best spokesperson.’ They don’t have much of a choice. … I don’t expect to see the daily briefing return until such time that this administration or the next one decides that it is in their interest from a communication strategy standpoint.
What about Sarah Sanders’ argument that the president makes frequently himself available? She also has informal availabilities where she answers questions on the White House driveway.
It’s better for her to take some questions rather than no questions. But the problem with that is one, it is obviously at the mercy of the elements, and two, one of the big benefits of the White House briefing as an institution is that it let smaller outlets know when they should be at the White House to ask questions.
An outlet that has two or three correspondents in Washington DC — and Washington requires more than two or three correspondents to cover properly — someone in Congress, someone in the White House, someone at the State Department, someone at the agencies, all kinds of options. These smaller outlets, when you had a briefing that was scheduled for 2 p.m. they will know, ‘OK we will staff Congress say until 1:30, and then one of our reporters will go to the White House and we know that there will be a forum for Q&A.’ So the people who were hurt the most by the suspension in the daily briefings are the smaller outlets.
Your predecessor, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg, had concerns over safety of the White House press corps, particularly at Trump rallies. To what extent is that still a concern of yours?<
I got a death threat yesterday. I did. It is an absolute constant concern. I have had death threats since the 2016 campaign. They dried up for a while but now they are back, in part because I think people are focusing on the dinner again. But it is a constant concern. I have been doing this for — in July I will have been in journalism for 23 years. This is the first time that some American political reporters have needed security details.
Are the threats for your SiriusXM show, or your position at WHCA, or both?
I have never had anything connected to the show. I have had things connected to my role as White House Correspondents’ Association president, notably right after I put out public statements condemning this president’s behavior, there is usually an uptick in those threats. Last fall, when I put out a statement sharply criticizing Donald Trump for celebrating a congressman’s criminal assault on a reporter, I got a couple of lovely threats. … This recent one was connected to another colleague’s comments on television.
There was lot of attention in the Mueller report over what Sarah Sanders said in connection to the James Comey firing and what she ultimately told to Mueller’s team. [At the time of the firing, she said that “countless members of the FBI” had contacted her to say they had lost confidence in him; she told Mueller’s team that the comment was a “slip of the tongue.” In an interview on Friday with ABC News, she insisted that a number of former and current FBI officials agreed with the firing].
As it concerns that particular episode, I am sure someone out there reported what she said earnestly and without the caveat that there was absolutely zero supporting evidence for this. I am just hard pressed to think of who. In real time, this was not a plausible statement. Does it damage its credibility? Of course it does. But I don’t dictate the editorial line inside the WHCA. I would just say, I don’t understand why you would not always be cautious with what comes from that podium. The first big intervention was Sean Spicer, who was directed to lie about the president’s inaugural crowd size. That kind of set the tone for the relationship between the White House and this White House press corps.
Is the dinner sold out?
It is. I have had to refund a bunch of table requests. We are in fact oversold again. While it is not technically a fundraising dinner, it is our main source of funding for the year. So it is good to keep it healthy.
The single biggest challenge for the dinner this year. We sign the contract years in advance, but this year in landed in the middle of a congressional recess. A lot of people that I invited said, ‘Of course I would, but I am going to be on a congressional delegation to Saudi Arabia, for example.’ This recess has made it more difficult for us, more than any other factor. More than reimagining the dinner, more than Donald Trump’s opposition. It was just sort of this very straightforward logistical problem.