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News + PoliticsThe White House Correspondents Dinner: A view from the inside

The White House Correspondents Dinner: A view from the inside

An 18-year-old media student reflects on the good, the bad, the celebrity culture—and making fun of the powerful

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Falling in love with political satire at 13 was no coincidence — it was a sign of the times I was growing up in spite of. The end of the 2016 election cycle showed the pitch-black darkness at the end of the tunnel: Donald Trump’s presidency. As he was sworn in on the Capitol steps the next January, I was watching from an eighth-grade history classroom, five miles away.

Adjacent to Trump’s presidency, I grew from 13 to 17 inside the Beltway as the daughter of a news executive. I got to watch history unfold through the eyes of DC’s brightest, who continued to assure me the end to the gleeful cruelty was imminent. They were wrong, as DC’s brightest often are. 

Trevor Noah performed at the 2022 event. Wikimedia Commons photo for Las Vegas 2019

What separates a journalist from a politician? Well, what doesn’t?

A politician is skilled at bending the truth for self-preservation, while a journalist dedicates their life and profession to unveiling it. A politician is—in theory, anyway—bound by the US Constitution above all else, with dire consequences for betraying it. Journalism’s laws revolve around telling nothing but the truth, and the true consequence for violating journalistic ethics shatters the vital relationship between press and people.

Public trust in the news media is indispensable for a democracy’s survival. American authoritarians found a loophole in the Constitution: If you can’t control the media from reporting the truth, make the concept of truth obsolete.

I was too anxious, too invested, and too fascinated by the political and media landscape I’d grown up watching to separate myself from it. I began my bachelor’s degree in media studies and journalism in 2021. The next spring would be the first White House Correspondents Dinner since 2019. When my father asked me if I wanted to go with him, I was elated, and curious to contrast what I saw with my existing beliefs of the DC news media’s showmanship. 

What makes a successful politician? In democracy’s greatest incarnation, it’s passing legislation that improves the lives of their constituents. In American reality, it’s getting reelected. 

What makes a successful journalist? In the greatest incarnation, a free press mediates the information pipeline from politics to the people. Their work fights corruption, injustice, and rebukes lies with objective truth. In the capitalistic masterpiece of a 24-hour-news cycle, false urgency, spectacle, and Nielsen ratings are metrics of success. The personalities who deliver the news claim best interest while sitting on information for months at a time until a book release they directly profit from.

Grandstanding on hourlong primetime shows about broken precedents and inflammatory tweets in search of an audience results in journalism’s biggest names. I’m surrounded by them tonight.

Walking into the 2022 White House Correspondents Dinner next to my father, my longtime vague frustrations with the media—the reason I chose to study this field—snapped into focus. A DC A-list party is a case study of humanity’s intersection between deep flaws and good intentions. Immediately, the ballroom is a competition of name recognition. Flocks of investors and lobbyists trail celebrities of politics, journalism, and of course, the real ones: Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian’s fashionably late entrance reminds me of a Bridgerton princess descending a staircase at her coming-of-age ball.

Each of the 200-plus tables are draped in elegant white linen and topped with six wine bottles. Each place setting has three forks, three spoons, three wine glasses, and a pre-set salad (if one leaf of lettuce and three wedges of cheese reaches salad status. To this room of people, I have no doubt it does.) Servers with trays of food defying laws of physics somehow maintain composure as they dodge and weave through packed aisles of minglers who have no intention of stepping aside to let them through.

Most news organizations’ section of tables have eloquent party favors waiting in each guest’s chair (I didn’t know they made CNN tissue paper). Notably, NPR, the organization I was a guest of and one of the only publicly funded newsrooms in attendance, skipped this frivolous and impersonal means of thanks; Instead, I watched my father take the time, before dinner and away from the cameras that would capture it, to express his thanks and pride for the organization’s work over the last two years.

The elite group of a dozen seated on the promenade is announced with great fanfare as servers delivering dinner continue their professionalism in navigating the packed room. Among them is the president of the White House Correspondents Association, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, and the performer of his generation: Daily Show Host Trevor Noah.

My focus was drawn to Trevor. Not only am I a longtime fan of his, but I am utterly fascinated by The Daily Show’s unique ability to wield satire as a weapon of mass destruction, all while staying stride-in-stride with cultural evolution. I am what no one would refer to as a Daily Show scholar. My equal-parts love and frustration for politics, journalism, and comedy grew (or festered) exponentially through each year of my adolescence, as national leadership and dialogue devolved to a level of absurdity that challenged satirists to keep up.

I love comedy of all facets: the smart, the stupid, the seven-minute SNL sketches hammering home the same fart joke. Within the comedy community, there is little argument about the least-desirable, most difficult gig of a comedian’s life: the White House Correspondents Dinner.

For a comedy veteran, performing for a hostile crowd can be a rare thrill that takes them back to their early days of stand-up in half-empty rooms at 2am. There is no audience in the world comparable to the Correspondents Dinner.

A comedian attacking the most powerful people of the world’s most powerful country to their faces can fall on deaf ears; Stephen Colbert’s biting and brutal set in 2005 was met with tense silence and the sound of scraping forks on plates. Any comedian who would do this job well is thrilled at the thought of leaving the room with 2,500 new enemies. Not for the sake of being a bully, but for the sake of drawing attention to hypocrisy.

Running for office in a democracy is opening yourself up to scrutiny—from the people, and by proxy, the press. This stable system of checks and balances is thrown when journalists form personal relationships with politicians for the sake of being DC elite. This is how comedians, the fools in the back of the classroom hocking spitballs at the teacher, become the mediating force of democracy. That should scare everyone as much as it scares the comics in that very position.

The Daily Show and its alumni were the canary in the coal mine. John Oliver, another Daily Show legend, has never headlined the dinner, and has made it clear that if the invitation is extended, he’s not interested.

 “A comedian is supposed to be an outsider,” Oliver reiterated (to NPR, funny enough). “He’s supposed to be outside looking in. I don’t want to be at parties in DC with politicians. Comedians shouldn’t be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there’s a big problem. That’s what is so concerning when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians—that’s a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in, because you should’ve done things that annoyed them in the past. It’s the same as a comedian. You’re no one’s friend.”

No one’s friend. No one’s friend. This mantra echoes in my head as the room mingles. I notice how Trevor watches from the stage in discomfort. Everyone beside him sips on wine, chats like old friends, obviously highly aware of the attention on them. Trevor scans the room with focused eyes, undoubtedly hearing the same advice from his predecessors that I can’t help but remember. This group of people should be among the most trusted and honorable America has to offer. Journalists, like comedians, should be outsiders; that’s how they maintain the objectivity that earns the public’s trust. The pageant of self-importance unfolding before us reaffirmed what we both knew to be true: This is no group of outsiders.

Trevor sinks the tiniest bit down in his seat to go over his notecards in silence. As he mouths joke after joke he’s likely rehearsed for days, he glances up with scanning eyes until they rest on its presumed target. He takes a breath and reads the next one. 

President and Dr. Biden enter to a standing ovation. Jill’s husband leads her by the hand to her place, pulling her chair out and ensuring she’s settled before finding his. The night begins with a celebration of the first black women correspondents in White House history, and the indoctrination of a new prize in their honor. Their families sit front and center. As the women are recognized, most of the room is still focused on their steak and fish; irritated by the lack of enthusiasm, my dad stands to continue clapping. The entire room follows his lead. 

When I’ve called my dad from my dorm room in San Francisco the past two months, he’s been visibly anxious and up way too late for the east coast. He stays up reading updates on NPR’s journalists in Ukraine and sleeping in 20-minute segments. He showed me the most updated document on the Friday night I came home. Each name had their location in a Ukrainian city I knew to be an active war zone, with the chilling words PROOF OF LIFE beside their names. NPR did not assign any staff members to go to Ukraine — these journalists sought out their news directors and volunteered to go. 

During the In Memoriam slideshow of international journalists killed in Ukraine over the last two months, my dad goes completely still next to me, entirely focused on the screen. One of the journalists killed was his old colleague at Radio Free Europe, Vira Hyrych; she was hit by a Russian missile in Kyiv. Her death was confirmed on April 29th, only one day prior. She was far from the only journalist to lose her life covering this two-month-old war; there will almost certainly be more. I’ve never felt as stupid or as small as I did sitting there in a sparkly dress, watching a slideshow of dead journalists. It was gut-wrenching. Knowing there were tables in this room who pushed Putin’s messaging about the war made my chest sour. I wonder how anyone in the room is holding in this visceral response the way I’m struggling to.

At the same time, it’s a reminder. For every news personality damaging the credibility of journalism, there are the ones who put everything they have on the line to make sure the world knows the truth. It’s a reminder to not let my frustration for journalism done wrong dismiss my awe for those who get it right. 

President Biden is the next to take the podium, immediately lightening the mood with a crack about how nice it is to be with the one group of Americans with a lower approval rating than he has. To his credit, as the room chortled, his smile broke down and he added, “That’s hard to say after what we just saw.” 

The importance of both Biden’s attendance and his willingness to play along is not lost on him. The Correspondents Dinner is meant to be a renewal of vows to the First Amendment, and an annual reminder that a true democracy should not only allow unfettered criticism, but encourage it. President Trump’s refusal to attend the dinner throughout the duration of his presidency spoke volumes of his stance on a free press: total indifference at best, hostile opposition at the worst.

As his successor, if he wanted to drag the train back to its tracks, President Biden’s visible attitude throughout the dinner had to be that of a friendly man willing to take a biting joke at his own expense. He had a broken precedent to fix. I watched closely to see if he knew that. He did. 

As Trevor stood up to tag in for Biden and close out the night, there was no hint of lingering nerves in his big, goofy grin; he was thrilled at what he was about to do, like a toddler getting his hands on a permanent marker and a blank wall. His jokes were biting, but didn’t break skin; his glee was infectious, to me at least, as he plowed forward with the goal of entertaining himself more than the unwinnable room. Still, I was interested; I ended up watching the crowd as closely as I watched him. (It’s sad to see that many people deny themselves laughter for fear of who would see them. Constantly remembering whose good graces you must stay in has to be so exhausting it’s not even worth it.)

Lucky for Trevor, he’s too good to bomb, even to comedy’s hardest audience. For everyone who didn’t laugh, there were two who did. Another old Daily Show adage comes back to me, from somewhere in the 20 years’ worth of highlights I’ve studied: Democracy dies in darkness; humor doesn’t.

What separates a journalist from a politician? Not what should; not what is supposed to. What truly separates the search for celebrity-like acclaim and power over our society plaguing both professions? The difficult answer: not much today. Public trust in the news media is lower than any other period in American history. Consequently, the stability of our union faces danger at heights unseen since the Civil War. 

Next week, I’ll turn 19. In the six years since Donald Trump’s election changed my life, I’ve been watching and learning. I’ve been pushing myself to understand the greater context of our swing to the right, and how something as fragile as democracy can be strong enough to outlive an elected authoritarian seeking absolute power. My heart is tired of being broken by the worst of the world.

What I see in this room of journalists, past the personalities with prominent Twitter followings, is a group of people who feel the same way. Cheaters and liars and injustice makes them angry enough to throw themselves into chaos, and sometimes danger, to find and magnify the truth. The journalists who volunteered to walk into an active war zone didn’t do it for fame or power or politics. Journalists (like satirists) transform the poison of their own anxiety into the power of intention. They fascinate me.

I am just as anxious six years later, but inexplicably, just as hopeful that we will be okay. What’s more American than overriding reason with emotion?

JJ Lansing is a Media Studies student at the University of San Francisco.

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