The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner has put journalists in an uncomfortable, ethically fraught position. Simply put, journalists shouldn’t pal around and laugh it up with the people they cover. Doing so gives the impression they are too close to the people about whom they report (an irony of sorts, given how the White House historically has regarded the press with disdain).
Even worse, in recent years the dinner has become a celebrity magnet, with Hollywood agencies throwing their own pre-parties and bringing in top names. It also has become crass and boorish, with featured comedians adding tasteless political bite to their routines, often crossing the line between humor and incivility.
So it was refreshing on Saturday to have Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow deliver the dinner’s main speech, and to have him focus on what ought to matter most — the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom, its importance to democracy and the responsibility this imbues on those who write history’s first draft.
The fact President Trump didn’t attend, and that he ordered none in his administration to go, was irrelevant. Chernow delivered an important twofold message for the nation — understand the history of press relations with people of power, and don’t take the First Amendment for granted.
If that was too somber a theme for this typically raucous event, it certainly was in line with the seriousness of the moment. He made up for any problems in tone by reminding everyone present, and those who were absent (including members of the administration and the American public), that press freedom is among the most important bedrock principles of freedom that protect liberty and guard against official corruption.
No other topic would have been more appropriate.
“This is as good a time as any to take stock and rededicate yourself to the highest standards of journalistic integrity and accuracy,” Chernow said. “So be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by the very things you’re fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision.”
What timely advice. The president’s attacks on the media have put some in the industry on the defensive, but such feelings can infiltrate objectivity. Professionalism and fearless accuracy ought to be the watchwords.
Chernow’s speech was not without attempts at humor and criticisms of President Trump, but its strength came from the thing only a historian could deliver with authority — historical perspective.18 comments on this story
He reminded his audience that relationships between presidents and the press historically have been adversarial. “But they don’t need to be steeped in venom.” He admonished, “We now have to fight hard for basic truths we once took for granted,” and he warned of how “a rising tide of misinformation masquerading as news threatens to make a mockery of the First Amendment.”
Even if peppered with occasional jokes and mild jibes, this was heavy stuff. But it’s about time the nation began considering heavy things amid the false jocularity of a serious age.