PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS declared a “running war” on the media. He and his aides have disparaged, threatened, and belittled reporters. They make patently false statements, easily checked, and then cry media bias when challenged or corrected. They have repeatedly called mainstream news outlets dishonest purveyors of fake news, and even implied the press will be to blame if there is another terrorist attack.
Trump has pledged to “open up our libel laws” to chill reporting on public figures. His chief strategist said the media should “keep its mouth shut and listen for a while.” Dear colleagues of the press, do you really want to be yukking it up with these people?
The White House Correspondents’ dinner is a hoary Washington tradition founded in 1921 in which the president, and the reporters entrusted to keep a check on him, engage in an evening of cheer. But the dinner is Exhibit A of the too-cozy relationship between political and media elites that has badly undermined journalism’s most precious asset: its credibility. The obsequious hob-nobbing is why many Americans consider the press to be part of the problem.
Now some news outlets and individual reporters are considering skipping the dinner this April. Trump supporters have seized on the potential boycott as proof of the media’s double standard. Maybe it took the shock of Trump’s election to reacquaint the Washington press corps with its essential watchdog mission, but better late than never: The demise of this unseemly lovefest is long overdue.
I have been to only one of these lavish pol-apaloozas, the Gridiron Club dinner, (a close cousin to the correspondents’ soiree) back when George W. Bush had just taken office. It was still the early days, before Sept. 11, before the Iraq War, even before Bush issued his science-defying restrictions on stem cell research. The skits and jokes were relatively benign. Karl Rove sat at our table.
But I felt queasy even then about the blurred lines between media and political celebrity. There was a certain flippancy among the celebrants that seemed off. Bush already had done much to unwind safety and health regulations, from lowering acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water to lifting ergonomic standards for the workplace. He was slashing funds for child care and pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and why exactly were we laughing?
Defenders of the dinner say it provides journalism scholarships for needy students, and the show must go on. White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason insisted the event would be held as usual to “celebrate the First Amendment and the role an independent press plays in a healthy republic.’’ In the current context that statement is positively Trumpian in its denial of reality. Make no mistake: The president has shown no more respect for an independent press than he has other institutions of democracy — judicial oversight, career civil servants, the separation of powers, to name a few.
Recently in Boston, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute refused to cancel a fund-raising dinner being held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, despite pressure from patients, doctors, and staff appalled by the administration’s attacks on science and health. Hospital officials said that canceling now would look like “a political statement.” But keeping a healthy distance from Trump’s merry band is not a political statement; it’s a values statement. So too is defending the journalistic values Trump demeans: verifiable facts, reason, transparency.
The mainstream media have been weakened and demoralized by economic dislocation and the siren appeal of cheap clickbait. But a vigorous free press is the thin black-and-white line between the American public and despotism, between accountability and impunity, between facts and “alternative facts.” Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called the media “the opposition party.” Hostile? Sure. But isn’t that what the Founders intended?
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.