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Lessons From This Year's White House Correspondents' Dinner

By / May 5, 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner attendees raise a glass to the First Amendment. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Some meeting-related takeaways from last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was missing something for the first time in 36 years: the president of the United States.

Last Saturday evening, members of the media, invited guests, and journalism students filled the Washington Hilton for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). Affectionately known as “Nerd Prom,” this year’s event, which is put on by the White House Correspondents’ Association, was missing one guest for the first time in 36 years: the president of the United States.

After President Trump announced on Twitter in February that he would not attend, some wondered whether “Nerd Prom” would go on. WHCA President Jeff Mason quickly assured that it would.

“The WHCA takes note of President Donald Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he does not plan to attend the dinner, which has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to shining a spotlight at the dinner on some of the best political journalism of the past year and recognizing the promising students who represent the next generation of our profession.”

And while this year’s dinner lacked its usual headliner, it offers some food for thought for putting on a successful event—no matter your political leanings.

Put the spotlight on your association’s mission. Sure, it’s not ideal if an expected speaker cancels on you, but WHCA was successful in seizing the moment. At a time when the term “fake news” is front and center and is frequently used by President Trump, the association was able to refocus the dinner on the values of a free press—which some critics, and even WHCA, said had been lost in favor of glitz, glamour, and celebrities in recent years.

The text of the First Amendment was read, and Jeff Mason, president of WHCA and a Reuters journalist, had some strong words in his opening address at the sold-out event. “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

That message was reinforced when Watergate legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took the stage. “Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said. Then, he and Bernstein discussed the current state of journalism, as well as lessons they had learned from one another over the years.

Find an entertaining host. While many had called for Alec Baldwin to headline the WHCD by impersonating Trump as he does often on Saturday Night Live (he did pre-tape a brief message for attendees), WHCA nabbed Hasan Minhaj, a comedian and senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

“Hasan’s smarts, big heart, and passion for press freedom make him the perfect fit for our event,” said Mason in announcing Minhaj as the dinner’s entertainer.

For a job that Minhaj himself said no wanted to do, he got decent reviews. His remarks featured a fair number of jabs at the administration—and, at the same time, celebrated the importance of the First Amendment.

He told the audience that after the event, “Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner. And that’s his right. … And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”

Celebrate the industry and its future. As many associations do at their events, WHCA uses the dinner to honor the industry’s best and brightest. For example, it presents awards to journalists in the field who it believes write or produce some of the best presidential-related news coverage.

WHCA also presented 23 scholarships to students to attend top-notch journalism schools like Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Missouri. (Proceeds from the dinner fund these scholarships and awards.)

This year, the dinner also took a moment to honor a group of Kansas high school journalism students, who exposed their principal’s fake education credentials. Their reporting eventually led to the principal’s resignation.

Will the 2017 WHCD be known as the one the president didn’t attend? Probably. But, in my opinion, it should be known as the one where WHCA and Minhaj not only entertained the crowd but stood up for the profession and celebrated both its current successes and future leaders.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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