Steven Portnoy, the association’s president, reminded guests that Donald Trump is thought to have launched his White House run after being skewered at the dinner in 2011. He then asked guests at the table where the now-former President was seated that year to promise just to laugh.
The annual dinner — the highpoint of Washington’s social calendar — was also notable for what didn’t happen: Unlike this year’s Oscars ceremony, no one was so offended by jokes from the headliner act that they got out of their seats and hit him.
Comedian Trevor Noah did memorably express fear however that a joke about Trump White House counselor Kellyanne Conway might provoke her husband to take the stage to thank him. (George Conway, a prominent attorney in town, is notorious for brutally and publicly criticizing his wife’s former boss.)
During his four years in office, Trump mercilessly attacked the press, refusing to attend the annual bash at which America’s Fourth Estate fetes its luminaries and celebrates its own accomplishments. For two years, the event was canceled because of the pandemic, pausing a nearly century-long Washington tradition.
Saturday’s reboot of the dinner helped restore a sense of civility and normalcy to life in the United States capital — even as the specter of Covid-19 continues to hang over it.
The event was held on the heels of the April 2 Gridiron Club dinner, where many of the attendees tested positive for the coronavirus afterward. Noah joked that Saturday night’s swank dinner was “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event.”
Attendees in the packed ballroom of more than 2,000 journalists, celebrities, politicians and Washington insiders were doubtless hoping Saturday that they will not repeat that debacle.
The return of the dinner reaffirmed the important fact that we now have a President who respects the press and can take some heat. (President Joe Biden even confirmed to Noah he wouldn’t go to jail for roasting him.)
But it wasn’t all good-natured kidding. In his speech, Biden recognized that the dinner was happening with “disinformation massively on the rise, where the truth is buried by lies and the lies live on as truth.”
What the President was getting at was what social media has done to the country. Americans used to get their news from the traditional media; now about half at least sometimes get their news from social networks, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. And, as we all know, misinformation is rampant on social media.
While Europe just announced a new law to fight disinformation, federal lawmakers in the US — the birthplace of social media — haven’t taken action. In fact, Congress has passed just two federal laws regulating the tech industry over the past 25 years. It needs to get to work. As I’ve said before, one reasonable way to fight the problem would be by fining social networks for potentially deadly disinformation that goes viral.
Noah also hit the nail on the head when he joked that print reporters felt that others in the industry were showing off that they have homes when they worked from home during the pandemic. That’s because so much of the advertising revenue that used to support the press now goes to tech companies such as Facebook and Google that don’t pay media companies when linking to their content.
This needs to change. Australia became the first place to require tech companies to pay the media for hosting their content, and it’s already having a big effect, helping create new jobs reporting on underserved areas in the country. It’s time for the US to follow suit. But none of this was discussed Saturday night.
It was also unfortunate that the exclusive establishment event wasn’t more inclusive. No serious recognition was given to members of the profession or other Americans who can’t attend indoor events with thousands of people. Attendees were required to be vaccinated and boosted and test negative for the coronavirus on Saturday before attending. But that didn’t eliminate all risk, which is why the President’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, didn’t go.
It would have been nice to see serious recognition of the many people whose personal circumstances put them most at risk from the return to “normalcy.” CNN political correspondent Kasie Hunt pointed out on her CNN+ show that “Everybody else might’ve moved on, but people with little kids just have not been able to.” That’s because Covid-19 vaccines aren’t available for children under age 5 (including my own).
The ceremony recognized the heroism of people in the profession, including journalist Austin Tice, who was captured while reporting in Syria a decade ago, and members of the industry who have lost their lives in Ukraine. And it celebrated the first two women of color to serve as White House correspondents, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne.
But in announcing a new award in their honor, “CBS Mornings” co-anchor Gayle King referred to the audience as “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” — language even Disney doesn’t use anymore. There’s an opportunity to be more inclusive of people who don’t conform to these traditional gender roles next year.
The generally good-natured dinner was an important step forward for the country in reaffirming respect for the press, though it remains to be seen whether it will also prove to be a setback if attendees do contract Covid-19 en masse. If they don’t, next year’s event may give us more to laud and laugh about.