It’s Time for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to End

There comes a time for every institution when it has outlived its purpose and become a mere shell of its former self, necessitating either a transformation or a dignified end. That time has come for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Whatever its stated purpose may be in celebrating the role of an independent media in a free society, it has long since lost and gone astray from in a cascade of pomp, glitz, champagne and showy celebrity.

It is telling that the only thing noteworthy about the event in the last decade or so is not the awards or the accountability it provides, but the way figures have used it as a punching bag less against authority than against the convivial atmosphere of the top figures in the press itself.

For the last two years now, Trump has decided to take his thin skin elsewhere, avoiding becoming the butt of jabs and jokes at his expense. There’s nothing commendable about that, of course, and it constitutes yet another attack by the would-be authoritarian on journalistic accountability. But it’s also part and parcel of Trump’s political brand to go hold a rally with his “forgotten men and women” while high society wines and dines itself over caviar and fine linen. The whole scene plays right into his hands and allows him to play the tough populist even though in reality he’s taking the coward’s way out.

But it’s not just Trump: the awkward elitism of the event also invites mockery from the left, and with good reason. The most beneficial moment in the dinner’s history came when Stephen Colbert helped make his career by roasting the gathered audience to a fine crisp and shredding them for their soft touch with the Bush administration. It was a glorious thing of beauty, made all the more remarkable by the fact that although the dinner is supposed to celebrate accountability for the rich and powerful, the very rich and powerful people in the room couldn’t stand to be held accountable themselves by Colbert. There were days of media silence surrounding the comedian’s act of chutzpah, until it became such a viral phenomenon that it overshadowed the actual dinner itself for years afterward. That should have been the beginning of the end for the dinner, but for some reason it has kept shambling on past its prime like some immortal zombie in a bad horror film.

This year comedian Michelle Wolf did the same thing as Colbert in a new era, attacking not only the Trump administration and its lackeys, but also Democrats and the press for being far too complicit in enabling what has transpired. In return, Wolf is getting same pearl-clutching criticism for being “risque,” “uneven” and “impolite.”

Wolf’s routine may or may not have the same cultural impact as Colbert’s, but if not that will only be because the dinner itself doesn’t command the respect it used to, and because both the press and the Democratic Party have taken a more adversarial approach to Trump than they ever did to Bush (though that itself is a far greater indictment of past wrongs than praise for current practice.) Like Colbert before her, Wolf’s critiques were almost entirely on target.

When both powerful right-wing populists and insurgent left-wing comedians are using your own event to portray you as hopelessly out of touch, it may be time to do something else. It’s a bad look, anyway: an event dedicated to holding the powerful to account shouldn’t, on optics alone, be a time for tuxedos, galas, fine linen and foie gras. Nor are we in an era where it serves the interests of democracy for television talking heads and newsreaders to be sharing lobster and chardonnay with people brazenly lying to them and calling them fake news.

It’s time to mercifully put this thing out of its misery. Either end it, or transform into something altogether more earnest and relatable–something a would-be dictator would actually look like a sniveling snowflake for ducking, and that would be far harder for a talented critic to mock.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.