For years, the routine has been the same. April means spring in Washington. Cherry blossoms bloom, and journalists, thawed after the capital's unpleasant winter, turn their attention eagerly to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. The women think about evening gowns, and the men wonder if last year's tux still fits.
Reporters also prepare themselves mentally and physically for what comes next, a weeklong stretch of partying, drinking and networking with lobbyists, administration officials, congressional staffers and members of Congress. Reporters, just as much as other dinner guests, are eager for selfies with cable news pundits, actors and the occasional bona fide Hollywood star.
Though the dinner itself is confined to Saturday, the number of media parties clustered around it turn the night honoring journalism into nearly a week of schmoozing for reporters. Festivities end on Sunday, but the parties can start as early as the previous Tuesday.
This, at least, was how things were in recent years, right up to the moment Donald J. Trump was elected president.
This year there will be fewer cocktail parties, fewer exclusive invitations. The dinner itself will swap out its normal rowdy and uproarious tone for a more somber approach. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose coverage of the Watergate break-in led eventually to former President Richard Nixon's resignation, have been tapped to deliver an address on the importance of aggressive investigative reporting.
Reuters' Jeff Mason, who was elected in 2014 to head the WHCA, confirmed that the dinner this year would put a special emphasis on free speech.
"From our perspective, the main event is our dinner, and our dinner this year, as every year, but particularly this year, will be focused on the First Amendment and the importance of a free press," he told the Washington Examiner.
White House staffers are also staying away "in solidarity" with their boss.
For a tradition dating back to 1921, the year of the first baseball radio broadcast, it's a lot of big changes in a short amount of time.
The first dinner, in 1921, was held seven years after the White House press advocacy group's founding. Like many things at that time, the festive evening began as a men-only affair, and it stayed that way for the next four decades despite the association's having admitted several women by then. It wasn't until 1962, at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, that the dinner finally lifted the ban on women.
The occasion, which is organized in minute detail by the association's nine-person board of directors, became an important and popular cultural touchstone in Washington, for which an invitation was a token of social status. The preening proliferated.
Actors, singers, dancers, humanitarian activists, tech giants, athletes, White House staff, the vice president and the president long ago became regular and expected guests. The greater the celebrity, the better. The bigger the names, the bigger the party.
The week of parties, brunches and boozing is one of the top three most popular annual events for many journalists, but it is not without its detractors in the press.
An unseemly display
The dinner is "maybe the most self-congratulatory event in a town full of professional narcissists," said Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at the Federalist and a Fox News contributor.
"It's a place where a decade ago a room full of supposedly powerful and intelligent people swooned at the sight of such noted celebrities as Lauren from MTV's The Hills," she added.
That's turning into a widely held view.
"The whole thing is such a charade of faux-pompousness and imagineered coolness. It's just nonsense," West Wing Reports creator and White House press corps member Paul Brandus said a few years ago.
The public displays of chumminess between journalists and lawmakers and lobbyists pose what some say is an ethical dilemma. For an industry supposed to speak truth to power, rubbing elbows with lawmakers and special interest groups is a bad look.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote in 2011, "[A]s with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control. Now, awash in lobbyist and corporate money, it is another display of Washington's excesses."
The increased emphasis on glitz and glamor is off-putting for those sober enough to remember that the evening is supposed to honor good journalism.
"The WHCD pre-parties often feel like a celebrity petting zoo," the Post's Maura Judkis said in 2014, "but that's never been more apparent than when an animal upstaged all of the other guests. It will be hard to top the 2012 appearance of Uggie, the dog from The Artist, who walked the red carpet in a teeny little tuxedo and turned everyone's Twitter feeds into mush."
Concerns over the optics of the weekend are neither new nor confined to left-leaning or right-leaning media. The New York Times, for example, has steered its journalists clear of the dinner since 2008.
"We are not being holier than thou [by not attending], or criticizing anyone who chooses to go," said Dean Baquet, who was then the paper's Washington bureau chief. Baquet is now executive editor. Speaking in a 2011 interview with the New York Observer, he added, "But we came to the conclusion that it had evolved into a very odd, celebrity-driven event that made it look like the press and government all shuck their adversarial roles for one night of the year, sing together (literally, by the way) and have a grand old time cracking jokes.
"It just feels like it sends the wrong signal to our readers and viewers, like we are all in it together and it is all a game. It feels uncomfortable."
On paper, the gala is meant to advance the interests of journalism.
"Proceeds from the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner go toward scholarships and awards that recognize aspiring and accomplished journalists," according to the group's website. "Auctions and raffles of WHCA dinner tickets designed to raise money for other organizations or for commercial purposes are against the policy of the WHCA."
The dinner has no problem selling the more than 2,600 available tickets, which cost roughly $300 per head. This is the association's chief source of revenue, which the Post recently put at around $600,000 a year.
The issue of money is fiercely debated, especially because only a small portion of the dollars raised goes to journalism scholarships, Washingtonian's Luke Mullins reported two years ago.
Attorney Bruce Hopkins, author of "The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations," told Mullins, "It strikes me that the primary purpose is to promote opportunities for journalists.
"The charitable, educational part is more secondary than primary."
But despite these long-standing concerns, parties have proliferated. In 2016, there were roughly 20 related media parties throughout the weekend. The main event itself has consistently attracted sold-out crowds of journalists.
Then Trump happened. In 2011, he was a guest at the dinner and sat silently as President Barack Obama, whose country of origin was often questioned by Trump, ridiculed him before an adoring and appreciative audience.
Now Trump is the president, and he has a love-hate relationship with the press. That is, he loves to hate it. His 2016 presidential race was built in part on a foundation of attacking the "dishonest" and "lying" media. He would blast reporters by name, including MSNBC's Katy Tur and Megyn Kelly, who was then at Fox News. He would dress down entire newsrooms for their coverage of his campaign.
This is lapped up by his political base, which recognizes that the press gives Democratic candidates disproportionately favorable coverage.
Trump accelerated hostilities with news media after the election. On Feb. 17 he tweeted, "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People."
This sparked outrage in newsrooms, prompting journalists to rally under a common banner on social media and question the future of the press under this new president.
"I was on the fence about this, but how can journalists go to WHCA dinner and toast somebody who has branded them an 'enemy' of the state?" asked the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.
Then it happened. Certain newsrooms whose receptions have for years been the talk of the White House Correspondents' dinner decided they didn't want to party this year.
The New Yorker announced in early February that it had canceled its annual WHCA reception, which it usually held just blocks from the White House, at the W Hotel.
Vanity Fair announced around the same time that it was also scrapping its plans to hold its usual exclusive after-party, which was hosted last year at the French ambassador's residence. Vanity Fair's usual partner, Bloomberg L.P., which has put on post-dinner soirees of its own in past years, announced that it, too, had no additional plans this year.
"We surveyed some of the people who usually go to this with us to our after-party, and just didn't find that much interest, so that's why we decided not to do it," a spokesperson said.
Time and People magazines followed suit, announcing on March 20 that they had scrapped their lavish Friday evening soiree, which had become famous for both its celebrity pull and its extravagant swag bags for guests.
"As usual, Time will be participating in the WHCA dinner. People will be making a donation to the WHCA in lieu of tables at the dinner," a Time Inc. spokesperson clarified in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
Alan Murray, Time Inc. chief content officer, added in a separate statement, "This year we have decided to focus on supporting the White House Correspondents' Association, which plays a crucial role in advocating for the broadest possible access for the press at the White House."
To be clear, many are still shelling out cash to secure spots at the dinner. They're just not going to host exclusive receptions as well.
Though Time, People, the New Yorker and Bloomberg are coy about what drove them to cancel their parties, Vanity Fair's editor in chief, Graydon Carter, came right out and said it was Trump.
Carter, who plans instead to fish in Connecticut that weekend, told the New York Times that the new president is the reason the party is canceled this year. He is not alone in thinking the event should be shunned now that Trump is in office.
"[L]et's go ahead and skip the part where everyone gets together for an evening, dons formal attire and pretends we can all laugh and be friendly together," U.S. News and World Report's Robert Schlesinger wrote in January. "As someone in the opinion business I will plainly skip it … because I don't like the man."
Past attacks on the press
It's a strong reaction to a president who, in spite of all his anti-media tough talk, hasn't actually done anything like what his predecessor did to curb press freedoms.
The Trump administration hasn't, for example, subpoenaed reporters in an effort to get them to reveal their sources. Nor has it secretly collected reporters' phone records. Nor set new records for denying Freedom of Information Act requests.
These distinctions go to Obama, whose two terms in office included several real infringements on the press.
In February 2011, for example, federal investigators were revealed to have spied on the New York Times' James Risen. They were attempting to determine whether he was the recipient of leaked CIA information. Investigators went through Risen's credit reports and his personal bank records, and they obtained information about his phone calls and travel, according to a motion filed in a federal court.
So did People and Time magazine. They even invited former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol.
Reports that federal investigators had spied on Risen came after the Obama administration renewed a subpoena that was brought against him originally in 2008. Risen was informed two years ago that he would not have to testify, which brought an end to a seven-year fight over whether he would be forced to identify one of his sources.
Later, in May 2013, the Associated Press revealed the Justice Department had secretly collected two months' worth of personal and work-related phone calls made by AP reporters and editors.
The Justice Department secretly obtained records on incoming and outgoing calls made by specific AP journalists, as well as general news staff, the news group reported. Federal investigators even collected data on calls made by AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.
That same year, the Justice Department labeled Fox News reporter James Rosen a "criminal co-conspirator" under the Espionage Act of 1917 in relation to a case involving possibly leaked classified information. Federal investigators tried to gain access to Rosen's personal emails and phone records.
The Justice Department went so far as to monitor the Fox News reporter's visits to the State Department, including tracing his phone calls and attempting to review his personal emails. Rosen was even labeled a "flight risk."
The New Yorker's Lizza, who wonders how anyone could attend the gala now that Trump is president, shared photos of himself that year hobnobbing with actresses, including Mindy Kaling, Zooey Deschanel and Lupita Nyong'o.
"How to look really bad: stand next to these three people," he bragged in a tweet published nearly one year after it was revealed the Justice Department had spied on the AP and labeled Rosen a "criminal co-conspirator" to espionage.
The same year Lizza tweeted about standing next to actresses, the Obama administration set a record for denying the most Freedom of Information Act requests of any administration. The Obama administration did it again in 2015. The same groups that are forgoing their normal WHCA festivities now that Trump is president were apparently undisturbed by this, because they went ahead with their parties anyway in 2015 and in 2016.
The stated desire this year to see the weekend focus on the dinner prompts the question "Why now?" It seems curious that, after all these years and very recent serious infringements on the press, there would be a sudden push to underscore the importance of journalism.
There are a few possible explanations.
First, these organizations might genuinely have sated their appetites in hosting parties. It could be that the cancellations have nothing to do with the White House or any sort of brave stand for journalism and everything to do with the possibility that media groups are just not feeling it this year.
A second and more likely explanation is that Michael Dolan was right when he wrote 25 years ago that the evening is little more than a high school popularity contest.
"In many ways, journalism recapitulates high school: excruciating assemblies in large bad-smelling rooms, vicious overseers, constant interaction with individuals and groups you despise, wisecracking co-conspirators, agonizing and lengthy periods of boredom punctuated by moments of galvanic terror, crappy lunches, and — central to either experience — the habitual pulling of all-nighters to finish assignments on subjects about which you know little and could care less," he wrote in 1992.
In high school, the kids who wanted the most to be popular paid painstaking attention to the pecking order. They worked extremely hard to avoid even the hint of association with someone who drew unwanted attention. If there's any truth to Dolan's comparison, it means Vanity Fair, Time and People are the teens hyper-conscious of status and Trump is the loud, abrasive new kid with whom they daren't be seen.
The third and final option is that groups are bailing out of their WHCA parties because they're looking to cut costs and Trump's unpopularity gives them cover to do so.
"Journalism doesn't pay. Profit margins have been laughable or nonexistent for more than a decade," a former White House speechwriter and longtime political insider told the Washington Examiner. "The suits who are canceling their parties have found a fantastic opportunity to do away with an expensive line item, while convincing the peons who work for them that they're taking a moral stand.
"This isn't about Trump; this is about the bottom line. These parties are never coming back, regardless of who's in the White House."
A brave face
For now, the groups that won't be hosting parties say they still plan to show up at the main event, which will be emceed by the Daily Show's Hasan Minhaj.
Minhaj, whose past jokes include labeling Trump the white ISIS, or "Whisis," will likely continue with his overtly political brand of humor. Whether he keeps with the more serious theme of the evening that the free press is America and the rest of the world's greatest ally is anyone's guess.
The WHCA, for its part, is putting on a brave face. It insists the changes have nothing to do with the dinner itself and that the annual tradition is as strong as ever.
"Be careful about drawing conclusions about boycotts. A decision by a news organization not to hold a party is not a boycott of the dinner," Mason, the association's president, told the Washington Examiner. "I think it's important to make it clear to the American public and to the extent necessary to journalists as well that this dinner is a celebration of the press, not of the presidency. So that's what we'll be doing."
He did concede, however, that there have been some unique tensions between the White House press corps and the new administration.
"There is always tension between the White House and the press corps that covers it. That is natural, and that is healthy. There is a lot of tension right now, and that is certainly not unrelated to the fact that President Trump has called media the enemy of the American people," Mason said
"That is something we reject. The role of the free press is critical in a healthy republic, and we stand up for those principles every day," he added.
At any rate, a few critics in the press see the canceled parties and Trump's decision not to go as a positive development.
"I'm glad Trump decided not to attend this contemptuous farce," the Federalist's Hemingway said, "and if another year or two of snubs necessitates canceling the most obscene political spectacle this side of Caligula, it will be a huge mark in Donald J. Trump's favor."
Full disclosure: The Washington Examiner regularly hosts tables at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. It has hosted dinner-related parties. This author has attended three dinner-related events in his career, two of which were work-related. He has never attended the dinner itself and plans to keep it that way.