April 29 marks the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, an event held by the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) to celebrate journalism and freedom of speech. The "nerd prom," as it's jokingly called, gathers journalists, politicians, and celebrities alike to put their differences aside for a little fun while raising money for journalism scholarships. It also tends to operate as a pressure valve, bringing together two elements in DC that are so often at odds — the administration and the reporters who are meant to take them to task — for a night of mutual roasting (and drinking).
The event is typically attended by the president, but, like pretty much everything else in current domestic politics, this year is different; President Donald Trump will be the first president in 36 years to intentionally skip the dinner. Trump's absence was announced in late February via tweet with no explanation as to why. Recently, he announced (via tweet, because obviously) that he would be hosting a rally the same night. As many pointed out, this seemed especially petty, considering that many White House correspondents would have to cover the rally and miss the annual dinner celebrating their work.
The last time a president missed the annual event was in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was unable to attend. What was his reason? He was recovering from an assassination attempt. And despite the extenuating circumstances, Reagan still phoned in remarks.
Trump shrugging off the event is being seen as many things, none of which are particularly pleasing. Some are drawing parallels between Trump and troubled President Richard Nixon, who also dodged the dinner whenever he could. Critics and reporters have roasted the current president, pointing out that his absence epitomizes his thin skin and unwillingness to cooperate. White House figures like Sean Spicer have said it would not be "appropriate" for the administration to attend and "fake" respect for the White House press corps. Establishments like Vanity Fair, Time, and People, which typically host their own events around the dinner, have canceled their functions to highlight the dinner itself and the work of the WHCA. Even WHCA President Jeff Mason tweeted a statement, saying the organization regrets Trump's decision and stressing the importance of the event in celebrating the tenets of democracy. And comedian Samantha Bee of TNT's Full Frontal is planning to host and air an alternative event the night of the dinner in reaction to Trump's break with tradition. She's calling it Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
David Guth, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, told POPSUGAR he worries that Trump missing such "political rites of passage" solidify an already rocky road for the historically unpopular president.
"It's something you're almost expected to do," Guth said. "Doing it sends a message that we're one nation and we can laugh at ourselves. . . . That's not what we're hearing these days."
Many members of the WHCA on the White House beat agree. One correspondent who has been working at the White House since 2012 and wished to remain anonymous vouched for the frustration in a different way.
"There's obviously a big hoopla around the dinner," the correspondent told POPSUGAR. "It's an opportunity to highlight some of the best work of our colleagues and make money for the scholarship fund, but also an opportunity to sit down with the people in the administration who we work with every day and have a dinner and be social."
"There is a frustration or a sense of missed opportunity," the correspondent said.
It's also a jarring change, considering President Barack Obama's downright mastery of the event. The former president was an ace roaster who used the event to connect with the press in a way that defied his actual feelings for them. Obama also displayed his alternative sense of humor at these events, which played particularly well with his efforts to build bridges between the parties via humor. Unsurprisingly, it now appears that Obama may have dropped the mic on the entire event.
Ironically, Trump's constant questioning of the legitimacy of the press is exactly why the WHCA was created: as a means to uphold access to the president and ensure accountability and transparency in the White House. The current roster of 250 members evolved from a group that was founded in 1914 and formed to define codes of conduct for reporters to prevent President Woodrow Wilson from ending press conferences (which he eventually did after finding them "tiresome").
As political journalism historian Martha Joynt Kumar wrote in 1996, it took time for presidents and politicians to understand members of the press were not all shady, muckraking characters and that both newspapers and politicians benefited from the amplification of the administration's messages. Thus, the White House beat was born. When William W. Price — the first WHCA president and a reporter at The Evening Star — was eventually given space to work at the White House in the late 19th century, a shift happened: he represented a journalist of the people becoming a conduit between the president and "the public whose opinions they seek to shape." His work did much to legitimize the work of the press.
The WHCA-hosted dinner came about in 1921 after newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding was elected president. Harding revitalized the relationship between the presidential office and the press by reinstating press conferences. He even hosted a dinner for reporters who covered his campaign. The first Correspondents' Dinner was held in response and, while the president was unable to attend, this established a trust and understanding between parties with the WHCA at its center.
Trump's abandonment of the press is so disheartening because it illustrates the disconnection between his very public office and the persons who work to articulate the behind-the-scenes happenings that affect us all.
"There's something meaningful about the president celebrating the importance of the First Amendment and the importance of reporters' work," the correspondent said. This wouldn't be that big of a deal if there was already an open door with the White House. But as many are aware, that door is fairly firmly shut — and while attending a fundraising dinner isn't a solution, many in the DC mix see it as an important tradition that contributes toward bridging the communication gap between the administration and the media.
The correspondent explained: "If you gave me a trade between the president showing up to dinner and more access to administration officials or on foreign trips or more information about the policies he's pursuing, that's a much more meaningful olive branch to me."
Guth agreed but stressed that Trump is missing out on a huge optics opportunity. "Here is a chance to show a very human side of himself because that's what the presidents have done," Guth said, alluding to how Bill Clinton made a showing amid his sex scandal and George W. Bush made an appearance despite Dick Cheney having shot someone. Guth also pointed out that this sour relationship between Trump, the press, and the Correspondents' Dinner might stem from Barack Obama's relentless roasting of Trump in 2011.
"They essentially humiliated him," Guth said. "This particular weekend, Trump was there and the president really focused on him for a significant part of the piece."
While this time of year sees the White House press working hard with the hopes of letting off steam at a dinner and a few parties, the potential for fun has been sucked out of the city this year. The correspondent sees Trump's lack of attendance as reinforcement of his disheartening point of view. It's a well-rounded loss that alludes to why the WHCA was founded to begin with.
"It does a disservice to everybody," the correspondent said. "We have less insight with which to write and the administration has less of a platform to explain what they're doing and why they're doing it. . . . Better access is probably mutually beneficial."
"Nobody that I've talked to is outraged that the president's not coming to our dinner," the correspondent added. "It's more a sense that this is a missed opportunity to celebrate the hard work that everybody has been doing over the last 100 days and some of the principles that would hopefully unite everybody."