Will Smith and George Clooney, step aside for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
It’s safe to say that the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — traditionally the most glittery night on the Washington social calendar, where A-list celebrities sprinkle their stardust as coveted guests of media organizations — will have a different vibe this year. With the current president —highly unpopular in Hollywood — staying away, organizers say the focus will not be on the red carpet but on the bedrock principles of the event: the First Amendment and the crucial role of the press in a democracy.
Not that those principles haven’t always been central to the mission of an event that began in 1921, notes Jeff Mason, WHCA president. But, he says, “the focus will be entirely on that this year, and I think that’s a great thing.”
The absence of President Donald Trump, who has called the media “fake” and “dishonest” and even “the enemy of the people,” marks the first time a president has declined since Ronald Reagan in 1981 — and he was recovering from an assassination attempt (but phoned in some friendly, humorous remarks nonetheless.) Trump has decided to hold a rally in Pennsylvania instead, and his White House staff will also be absent, in what was described as “solidarity” with their boss.
But even if Trump had decided to come, this year’s event would have been different, Mason says, “based on the tension that has existed in the relationship and some of the things he has said about the press. We were preparing for a different dinner either way.”
So as opposed to last year, when guests at President Barack Obama’s final dinner included Smith, Emma Watson, Kerry Washington, Helen Mirren, the late Carrie Fisher, and, for a Kardashian quotient, model Kendall Jenner, this year’s big stars seem to be Woodward and Bernstein — not Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who played the famous reporting duo, but the men themselves, who’ll be presenting journalism awards. Woodward told the Washington Post the two will speak about “the First Amendment and the importance of aggressive but fair reporting.”
There will be, as usual, a comedian emceeing the event, which will air on C-SPAN: Hasan Minhaj, of “The Daily Show.” But he will have competition: late-night star Samantha Bee will be headlining “Not the White House Correspondent’s Dinner,” airing at 10 p.m. EDT on TBS (TV stars like Alysia Reiner of “Orange Is The New Black,” Retta of “Parks and Recreation,” and Matt Walsh of “Veep” are among those scheduled to attend the party afterward.)
Besides the high-profile after-parties (some of which have been canceled this year), the correspondents’ dinner has spawned a number of annual events the same weekend, like the fundraiser Friday night for The Creative Coalition, an advocacy group fighting for continued arts funding. Tim Daly of “Madam Secretary” (the group’s president), Keegan-Michael Key of “Key & Peele,” Walsh of “Veep,” and many others are scheduled to attend.
There’s also a traditional garden brunch co-hosted by media consultant Tammy Haddad — who will be attending the correspondents’ dinner too, and says she’s looking forward to it. “What you’re going to see Saturday is more journalists per square inch than ever before, united in showing what they do and how they do it,” she says.
“Those celebrity spots will now be taken by journalists,” Haddad adds. “There’s going to be more interest in what they do. I mean, look at David Fahrenthold,” she said of the Pulitzer-winning Washington Post reporter, one of the dinner’s award recipients. “He’s the Bono of journalism. Journalists are heroes now.”
The dinner didn’t start out as a multi-day celebrity-studded event. Most trace that development to 1987, when then-Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly brought Fawn Hall, the secretary in the center of the Iran-Contra affair. That began a tradition. In 2012, Lindsay Lohan came as the guest of Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, a development that earned scorn from Tom Brokaw. (“Give me a break,” he said in an interview with Politico.)
The potentially (to some) uncomfortable glitz factor, not to mention the schmoozing of administration officials and journalists who cover them, led a few news organizations to stop attending in recent years. But other guests have seen it as a good opportunity to get some business done.
“There’s always business going down,” says Robin Bronk, CEO of The Creative Coalition. “In Washington, you’d be hard-pressed to find a party that doesn’t have a purpose. It tastes good, but it’s good for you.”
Bronk says the WHCA dinner, celeb factor aside, “does a fine job of reminding us why a free press is so important. They always do a great job protecting this great amendment that we have.”
Mason, of the WHCA, says Trump may be sending a signal with his absence, but that’s up to him: “The signal that WE are sending is that we will uphold the principles of the First Amendment and we will celebrate that at this dinner.”
Still, it won’t be all serious, he says, promising that Minhaj will be using his comedy chops — without “roasting the president in absentia.”
“People don’t want to come to a dinner and feel bored or preached at. Hopefully neither of those things will happen.”
Bee says she, too, will focus on celebrating the press.
“We’re intending our show to really focus on honoring the press for all of the work that we vampire from them, all the hard work that people do that go into making a show like ours possible,” she told the Associated Press at an event this week.
Trevor Noah, the “Daily Show” host, said he was excited to see what both Bee and Minhaj bring to the weekend’s festivities.
“Maybe there’s something different that we’ll get to see from the correspondents’ dinner,” he said.