Skip­ping ‘nerd prom’ now would prove Trump right

CBS News re­porter Ma­jor Gar­rett says the way to show neu­tral­ity is to treat ev­ery pres­i­dent the same

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Ma­jorCBS

The White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion din­ner is not a mood ring. It doesn’t care if Pres­i­dent Trump — or any pres­i­dent — likes, dis­likes, cel­e­brates, scorns or ig­nores White House re­porters. The annual gala does not in­di­cate, il­lus­trate or rep­re­sent the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the White House and the re­porters who cover it. It is an in­sti­tu­tion that cel­e­brates one bedrock Amer­i­can value, the First Amend­ment, and two jour­nal­is­tic goals: to high­light ex­cel­lent re­port­ing and to award schol­ar­ships to the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists.

That has al­ways been true. But the Trump pres­i­dency has in­spired some in the press corps to boy­cott this year be­cause — if I have this right — re­porters are too good for Trump. When asked why his out­let won’t be co-spon­sor­ing its al­ways well-at­tended WHCA din­ner af­ter-party this year (and why he says he’s go­ing fish­ing in­stead), Van­ity Fair ed­i­tor Gray­don Carter told the New York Times that his rea­sons were “Trump” and “the fish.” The New Yorker is scrap­ping its very pop­u­lar cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner week­end kickoff party, as well. U.S. News & World Re­port’s Robert Sch­lesinger wrote, “The me­dia should go all the way and boy­cott the din­ner en­tirely this year.” Of Trump, The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Mar­garet Sul­li­van ar­gues that it’s time to can­cel the event be­cause the press should not “be his prom date.”

But no self-re­spect­ing White House re­porter has ever been a pres­i­dent’s prom date, and the din­ner isn’t a date at all. It’s a cease-fire with bad wine and crowded ta­bles. And if we, the me­dia, stand Trump up at the prover­bial dance be­cause we’re pin­ing for an­other “date,” we make it that much eas­ier for him to say we’re play­ing fa­vorites. And in this case, at least, he’d be right.

The WHCA al­ready has to de­fend it­self against the “nerd prom” cliche — two hours of live TV ev­ery spring dur­ing which gown- and tuxedo-clad jour­nal­ists al­legedly do noth­ing more than min­gle with pol­i­tics-cu­ri­ous celebri­ties. Af­ter that, so goes the te­dious trope, re­porters bow down be­fore sources as sup­pli­cants. Never mind that the vast ma­jor­ity of WHCA mem­bers don’t re­ceive an in­vi­ta­tion to the din­ner or the var­i­ous re­cep­tions that take place be­fore and af­ter. Never mind that re­porters, like ev­ery­one else, are ca­pa­ble of do­ing some work while dressed up and laugh­ing at the hired comic or the pres­i­dent of the United States.

Con­sis­tency mat­ters. The New York Times, among other or­ga­ni­za­tions, has for sev­eral years cho­sen to ig­nore the din­ner. Fair enough. Rea­son­able jour­nal­ists can dis­agree. The sug­ges­tion, though, that hold­ing the din­ner dur­ing the Trump era would be an act of de­base­ment, or that the ad­vent of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is the right mo­ment to do away with the event al­to­gether, strikes me as pre­cisely the wrong ap­proach. My out­let, CBS News, will par­tic­i­pate this year and proudly so. If they back out now, or­ga­ni­za­tions that at­tended last year ought to ex­plain what is dif­fer­ent about this year. Is it Trump? Or is it them? Skip­ping need­lessly hands an ev­i­den­tiary cud­gel to Trump and his acolytes that re­porters can­not and will not cover his pres­i­dency ob­jec­tively.

Yes, it might strike some as un­seemly for re­porters to at­tend a ban­quet where the key­note speaker is a pres­i­dent who calls the press “dis­hon­est” pur­vey­ors of “fake news.” But it would be even more un­seemly, given our role, if we sig­naled to our read­ers, view­ers and lis­ten­ers that it is be­neath us to pay Trump the same in­sti­tu­tional re­spect ex­tended to pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents. Be­sides, Trump is hardly the first pres­i­dent to see the press as his en­emy. Other pres­i­dents have at times demon­strated con­tempt for jour­nal­ists, lim­ited our ac­cess, cir­cum­vented us and ques­tioned our mo­tives. I’ve cov­ered three of them.

Hold­ing the din­ner does not con­fer re­spect on any pres­i­dent. It aligns one in­sti­tu­tion, the WHCA, with an­other, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency. If the din­ner were can­celed be­cause (gasp!) a pres­i­dent made a few snide re­marks about White House re­porters, that act of self-re­gard would say that the First Amend­ment is ne­go­tiable and that emo­tional well-be­ing takes prece­dence over pro­fes­sional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. For my­self and for my col­leagues on the beat, let me say un­equiv­o­cally: never.

Let’s re­mem­ber, fi­nally, why we hold the din­ner: The WHCA, backed by the Bill of Rights, fights daily for ac­cess to the most pow­er­ful fig­ure in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics — and thereby, the as­so­ci­a­tion hopes, en­cour­ag­ing re­porters in state capi­tols, county com­mis­sion of­fices and city halls to do the same. Events built around the din­ner al­low col­le­giate schol­ar­ship win­ners to ask ques­tions of sea­soned mem­bers of the White House press corps, learn­ing from some of the best about how they might be bet­ter re­porters, sto­ry­tellers and writ­ers. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, in­ter­act­ing with these en­er­getic, op­ti­mistic and cre­ative souls has con­sis­tently re­vived my hopes for the craft of jour­nal­ism and the dura­bil­ity of a free press. This was vi­tal to me early in my ca­reer as a Wash­ing­ton re­porter, and now I see it as a chance to give back.

If Trump rep­re­sents a gen­uine threat to press free­doms, then fore­go­ing the din­ner doesn’t change a thing. The right re­sponse, in­stead, is for re­porters and news or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­dou­ble their com­mit­ment to a WHCA din­ner built around the jour­nal­ism of the present and of the fu­ture. Ma­jor Gar­rett is the chief White House cor­re­spon­dent for CBS News and a for­mer White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion board mem­ber.

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