The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

An Alternative White House Correspondents Dinner for an Era of Alternative Facts

Comedians and journalists peer through the looking glass, darkly.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
sam bee
sam bee

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.

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

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.