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2019 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Host Won’t Be a Comedian Because They Can’t Take a Joke

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: Comedian Michelle Wolf attends the Celebration After the White House Correspondents' Dinner hosted by Netflix's The Break with Michelle Wolf on April 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix)

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a nearly century-old tradition thrown by the White House Correspondents’ Association, where the press corps and politicians get together to celebrate themselves. It’s earned the nickname “Nerd Prom,” even though in recent years it’s become something more of a celebrity event than its previous geek-gala image implied.

In 1944, the event was hosted by Bob Hope, and in the nearly 75 years since then, the host has almost always been a comedian. Occasionally, the MC is another type of performer, but comedy is the tradition, which led to the current format of the night: essentially a roast. The comedian roasts both the president and the press, as does the president, poking fun at journalists and usually himself as well (still waiting on herself). That’s been the format of the night since the early 1980s.

This year, though, the WHCA is breaking with that tradition and has invited a non-comedian, non-performer to host the 2019 event. The night’s “featured speaker” will be author Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical.

According to the WHCA, Chernow was selected to share his “lively, deeply researched perspectives on American politics and history,” and he will “place this unusual moment in the context of American history” as it has to do with free speech and a free press.

Chernow explained in a statement, “The White House Correspondents’ Association has asked me to make the case for the First Amendment and I am happy to oblige. Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics.”

That all sounds great on paper. This is an unusual moment for the American press, especially in relation to the White House, and the WHCA should place that issue front and center. Chernow says, “My major worry these days is that we Americans will forget who we are as a people and historians should serve as our chief custodians in preserving that rich storehouse of memory.” Sure, great, makes sense.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to see this move as a total undermining of the idea of free speech, considering the context the WHCA is operating under. The dinner has long been criticized for allowing and even encouraging journalists and what are essentially their subjects to get too cozy, sullying the integrity of their relationship. In 2007, the New York Times’ Frank Rich condemned the event in the “post-9/11 era,” writing, “it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows.”

None of that has ever been truer than since Donald Trump took office.

In 2017, Trump became the first president in 36 years to skip the dinner, instead holding his own rally. Ronald Reagan was the last president to miss the dinner, and that was because he was recovering from an assassination attempt.

Last year, Trump again skipped the event, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders and some other surrogates attended in his stead. Comedian host Michelle Wolf did not hold back in making scathingly acerbic jokes at the administration’s expense, and the reaction was appalling. Republicans and conservative media figures attacked Wolf, twisting her words and essentially rewriting her jokes to be about Sanders’ appearance, ignoring the actual target of the jokes, which was her horrible behavior and complicity in Trump’s actions.

Even worse, rather than acknowledge the substance of Wolf’s jokes, most of the mainstream media went along with this false narrative. Apparently too scared to stand up for facts and possibly look like they weren’t doing enough to defend a poor defenseless “wife and mother,” they joined in, clutching their pearls and condemning Wolf for jokes she never made. The WHCA threw Wolf under the bus, saying their mission is to provide a “unifying message” of a free press while “honoring civility,” and that Wolf didn’t reflect that.

It was exactly the sort of spineless response we hate to see from major press outlets in response to the Trump administration’s perpetuation of lies and fake narratives. Given that context, the choice of host for this year’s dinner feels like a blatantly feeble PR move meant to appease the current administration and its most vocal supporters, rather than to actually bolster First Amendment freedoms.

Of course, we’ve reached the point where there’s not much to joke about regarding this White House. Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minhaj the year before her did the best they could, but there’s a reason their jokes were dubbed too “mean”: because the only other option is to lean into fecklessness, which, apparently, is what the WHCA has chosen to do.

Hopefully, Samantha Bee will be back this year with her Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, because that’s the kind of event we need—one that actually values a free press, not just the idea of one.

(via The Wrap, image: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.