This weekend, in response to the events of the first week of the Trump presidency, Change.org posted a petition. It was written by M. Scullion of Bethlehem, Pa.; it arose, Scullion wrote, in response to recent “attacks on a pillar of our democracy, the independent press.” Its proposal? The cancellation of the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
As Scullion explained of the annual Washington gala,
This event will give the White House yet another opportunity to strengthen its narrative of a biased media and spread its propaganda whilst condemning, embarrassing, and further undermining the fourth estate. As we march in the streets to force the White House to hear us, we need to know that the press stands separate, not rubbing elbows with the administration that we march against. Please reconsider this event.
The Correspondents’ Dinner is, as it stands, currently expected to continue. And it will likely take roughly the same shape that it long has: as a kind of mutualized roast, with the president making fun of the press and vice versa. April of 2017 will likely find members of those shadow three branches—the government, the press, the entertainment industry—gathering in the Washington Hilton for the event that has come to be known, both lovingly and less so, as the Nerdprom.
What will be different about this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner, though, is that this one will have some competition. The 2017 Nerdprom will feature a shadow dinner, itself attended, like the original one, by media members and celebrities. This dinner, however, will be thrown not by the White House Correspondents’ Association, but by the cable network TBS. It will be hosted not by the head of the WHCA, but by the comedian Samantha Bee. It will be called, simply but sort of profoundly, Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The shadow Correspondents’ Dinner will be, like its forerunner, a “gala affair”—one that, a press release notes, will welcome “journalists and non-irritating celebrities from around the world.” It will take place, through “an incredible coincidence,” at precisely the same time as the official White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “We suspect some members of the press may find themselves unexpectedly free that night,” TBS puts it, “and we want to feed them and give them hugs.” Hugs both literal and more figurative, it seems: All proceeds from the event will go to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As Bee explained it, “The evening is sure to bring plenty of surprises, music, food, and laughter—and if you’re not careful you just might learn something. Specifically, you’ll learn how screwed we’d be without a free press.”
She added: “We’re really doing this. This is not a joke.”
It’s not. It’s happening (in this case, at Washington’s Willard Hotel). The alt-Correspondents’ Dinner is a joke, though, in the sense that it’s selling itself as an event-long version of the roast a high-profile comedian—Larry Wilmore, Cecily Strong, Stephen Colbert—traditionally offers, with jokes aimed at both the president and the press. Bee will fill that role at the Not the Correspondents’ Dinner; her target, though, isn’t necessarily the president or the press, but rather the notion that the two can participate in a gala event in the first place. The anti-ness of the event suggests that, with President Trump, something has shifted, enough to make the traditional WHCD glad-handing and elbow-rubbing not just awkward, but, in fact, impossible.
The traditional complaint about the Correspondents’ Dinner is that it’s too friendly, too smarmy, too compliant in its willingness to put members of the government and the press together in one room, sharing some jokes and some par-cooked salmon. TBS is waging another criticism, though: It is suggesting, via its shadow event, that the over-friendliness has given way to under-. That the smarm has given way, this year, to all-out war. (Sm)armistice, in that context, is no longer a possibility. We suspect some members of the press may find themselves unexpectedly free that night.
This is a moment of alternatives. The inauguration of the new president was followed, a day later, by a protest march that, in its aesthetics, suggested a counter-inauguration. Many works of pop culture, as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber noted earlier this month, are exploring the notion of alternate realities in their fictive worlds. And we live among, of course, “alternative facts”—offered both by the White House and by authors of far-flung and occasionally hazy origin. It’s a time of epistemic chaos, and a time when Newton’s law—the action, followed inevitably by the opposite reaction—is being realized, ever more, in civic life. It’s extremely fitting, in that sense, that 2017 would offer both a White House Correspondents’ Dinner and a counter-White House Correspondents Dinner. And it’s fitting, as well, that the hashtag that has already been determined for the latter event will be, simply, #NotTheWHCD.