On Saturday night, the distance between President Donald Trump and the reporters covering his administration was far greater than the 122 miles separating Washington’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner from the Harrisburg, Pa., rally where he belittled journalists as he touted his record.
That gap graphically displayed the unfortunate division in today’s bitter politics.
“I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you, and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?” the president told enthusiastic supporters in a region that helped him break the Democrats’ blue wall last November.
Taking credit for the term “fake news,” and assailing the overall media and such regular targets as CNN, MSNC, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, he said, “Their priorities are not my priorities and not your priorities. If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big failing grade.”
But at a dinner more reflective of the WHCA’s journalistic roots than recent celebrity-laden events, President Jeff Mason of Reuters disputed Trump’s criticism. “We are not fake news,” he told the sellout crowd of 2,636 reporters, editors, executives and news sources. “We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
The night’s entertainer, Hasan Minhaj of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” was more direct.
“We gotta address the elephant that’s not in the room,” the young Indian-American comic began his pointedly anti-Trump bit. Alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he joked, “the leader of our country” is in Moscow, but “the other guy” is “in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”
That may well be one explanation why he skipped this traditional presidential showcase and the earlier Gridiron Club dinner, which features skits mocking politicians and the press. Trump misplayed a similar campaign event, New York’s Al Smith Dinner, with nasty rejoinders toward opponent Hillary Clinton and the wealthy, mainly Catholic crowd, rather than the usual self-deprecating humor.
At Saturday night’s Pennsylvania rally, resembling a 2016 campaign event or 2020 preview, Trump mixed anti-press invective with an overblown accounting of his record before a crowd, which photographs showed failed to fill the 7,600-seat arena.
Most was red meat, aimed at a base that loves Trump and distrusts the media. But there has always been hypocrisy in his anti-press rhetoric. A voracious follower of the papers he disdains and the cable networks he denigrates, Trump has always catered to journalists, including some from those targets.
Politico noted last week that Trump aides have been accessible to White House reporters, and, on the day his health bill was withdrawn, he initiated telephone interviews with The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and The Times’ Maggie Haberman. Last week, he gave multiple interviews to mainstream organizations, including Reuters, where he presented three reporters, including Mason, with a map showing his electoral victory.
Throughout, Trump demonstrated his proclivity for exaggeration and hyperbole, calling his 100-day record in his weekly radio speech “just about the most successful in our country’s history.” Most media assessments were more mixed. The Post’s “Fact Checker,” Glenn Kessler, wrote Sunday he has made 469 false or misleading claims.
The WHCA dinner definitely reflected Trump’s impact. Traditionally, it has featured the president and first lady; this year, in Trump’s absence, it celebrated the First Amendment.
Trump inaccurately said it included “a large group of Hollywood actors” like those who lately have overshadowed the fact the WHCA (which I headed in 1996) primarily advocates for working White House reporters.
This year’s biggest celebrities were journalistic icons Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who presented press awards and touted the verities of good journalism. Bernstein defined it as seeking “the best obtainable version of the truth,” adding that was always needed, “especially now.”
For most journalists, the Woodward-Bernstein view represents an ideal. And these annual press dinners are intended to bring together Washington’s journalistic and political communities in a way that reflects both the press’ view of its crucial place in public life and the attitude of presidents combining institutional respect for that role with personal dislike of its often critical coverage.
That balance has been sadly lacking this year with a president more determined to use the press as a political whipping boy than to show he understands its essential place in American life.
As Trump might tweet: “Sad!”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.