Jeff Mason, current White House Correspondents’ Association President, and two former Georgetown Institute for Politics and Public Service fellows reflected on the role of the White House Correspondents Dinner in D.C. politics at GU Politics’ inaugural Georgetown University Correspondents’ Dinner last night.
The night, modeled after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner scheduled for April 29 and co-sponsored by The Hoya, included a dinner in the GU Politics office followed by a discussion between former GU Politics Fellows Michael Steel and Scott Mulhauser in the Bioethics Research Library.
Mulhauser and Steel described their experiences attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinners, as well as working with members of the press and political communities in Washington, D.C.
Mulhauser said the Dinner’s outlandishness is a perfect fit for Washington.
“It is such a weird, odd, non-Washington thing but yet endemically Washington all at the same time,” Mulhauser said.
In the discussion, Mulhauser brought up the 2011 dinner, infamous for host Seth Meyers and President Obama’s jokes at then-attendee Donald Trump over the birther controversy, an incident some say encouraged him to run for office himself.
“It is thought by many that he was so irked at being mocked openly and not being part of this clique. It was sort of a joke about whether he’d run for president at that 2011 dinner,” Mulhauser said.
Steel remembered one interaction between former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner and Obama that tested the his limits.
“The fourth or fifth year, President Obama did jokes about Speaker Boehner being orange. It was kind of like, ‘Ehhh… all right, we get it,’” Steel said.
Both panelists agreed on the importance of D.C. events like the Correspondents’ Dinner in advancing political ambitions. Mulhauser said these seemingly informal settings can make or break a politician’s career.
“These become sort of proving ground on whether you can take a punch and whether you can give a punch in an appropriate way, much like the State of the Union responses from the other party have determined the fates of governors and senators alike,” Mulhauser said. “These speeches and dinners show whether you’ve ‘got the s–t.’”
The main event of the evening was an interview and Q&A session with Jeff Mason. Mason, who also works as a reporter for Reuters, shared stories and insight from his time in the field.
Mason came to Washington in his quest to cover the 2008 residential campaign, after working as a foreign correspondent in Germany. Mason said Washington is an extremely relevant city to journalists, regardless of their field.
“Any journalist likes to be covering a big story, and the biggest story in the world was right here [in D.C.],” Mason said. “It just is, whether you’re interested in politics or not. That’s why it appealed to me.”
While the White House Correspondents Association is perhaps most famous for hosting the annual Correspondents’ Dinner, Mason highlighted the other kinds of work the Association does.
“The dinner gets a lot of attention, but that’s actually just a small part of what we do. On a daily basis, we advocate for press access at the White House on behalf of the global press,” Mason said.
Mason said this advocacy is pertinent given the Trump White House’s adversarial relationship with the press.
President Trump recently announced that he would not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He will be the first sitting president in 36 years to miss the dinner. Mason commented on this unprecedented move, explaining how this impacts the relationship between the White House and the press.
“The president, of course, decided not to come to the correspondents’ dinner, and in my view, more egregiously, sort of banned his staff. I think it’s an unfortunate signal. We will have the dinner with or without them, and I think you will see the dinner will be very focused on the First Amendment and its principles — the importance of a free, independent press.”
Additionally, President Trump has frequently criticized news organizations like The New York Times and CNN. On Feb. 24, Press Secretary Sean Spicer prevented journalists from The Times and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing, prompting protests from the news organizations omitted from the briefing and backlash from other groups who refused to attend the meeting.
According to Mason, the Correspondent’s Association does their best to mitigate any tensions between the White House staff and the press corp.
“It is our job to ask questions, and [Sean Spicer] can choose not to answer, and he does make that choice a lot, but we still ask. There is significant tension, largely related to the fact that this president has called the media the enemy of the American people. We reject that characterization,” Mason said.
Mason emphasized the responsibility the news media has to cover elections and candidates accurately, addressing claims that the media was directly responsible for the outcome of the most recent presidential election.
“There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the media in its coverage of any election, and perhaps this one in particular. But if someone says to me, ‘you guys are responsible for the outcome of this election,’ the media does not vote — the citizens vote. We have a responsibility to report accurately, the citizens have the responsibility to take that information and make their decisions.”
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