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An Alternative White House Correspondents Dinner for an Era of Alternative Facts
Comedians and journalists peer through the looking glass, darkly.
On a suffocating Saturday afternoon in Washington, men in tuxes and women in ballgowns stood around drinking and chatting and waiting for the show to start. The show was the Not the White House Correspondents Dinner, hosted by Samantha Bee and put on by TBS. The men and women were largely, though not exclusively, journalists.
Bee announced she’d be holding Not the White House Correspondents Dinner even before U.S. President Donald Trump announced he wouldn’t be attending the real thing. The WHCD, or nerd prom, is a night for journalists, celebrities, and the president to break bread and roast one another, the conceit being that everyone is ultimately on the side: Of democracy.
Trump, who has an openly adversarial relationship with the press, demonstrated that everyone is not, in fact, on the same side, and the WHCD, in its newest, Trump-less iteration, quickly became a reminder of that.
Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents dinner was something else — a sort of comedic reflection of the state of journalism and its relationship to power, featuring famous people from outside of journalism (Retta! Alia Shawkat), famous people from inside journalism (Van Jones posing for photos! Jim Acosta getting help with his wristband!), and not-at-all famous people from respected journalism outlets who sort of recognized other people from Twitter (hi). All nibbled hor d’oeuvres and sipped champagne and sparkling water and mingled and waited for the roughly 90 minute program to start.
The show itself was very funny because Bee and her staff are very funny. They roasted CNN, alternative facts, the alleged sexual predators recently ousted from Fox News, and, of course, Trump himself. Everyone was there, Bee said, because they — and she — appreciate journalism, and the work that journalists do.
To recap, then: the party and performance, itself a spoof of a much-lampooned institution, were a celebration of an industry simultaneously scrutinized and celebrated, jeered and praised, in time of Trump.
In Bee’s final segment, she gave the speech she would have delivered on the occasion of President Hillary Clinton’s first 100 days in office. She sketched an alternate universe in which congressional Republicans were eagerly investigating the president, the cabinet was half women, boring policy accomplishments piled up, and it would be thought insane to task one’s son-in-law with bringing peace to the Middle East.
Shortly thereafter, the show wrapped up with a call to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists — sales for the program made nearly $200,000 — and to support journalism. The United States, the audience was reminded, is among the just 13 percent of countries in the world with a free press, an institution that cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, a recent Freedom House report flagged as one of its key findings, “United States President Donald Trump disparaged the press, rejecting the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions.”
Bee then bid adieu, saying she’d had about as much fun as she’d ever had performing. Everyone else seemed to agree, their fun tempered only by recalling what had brought them there in the first place.
Photo credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TBS