Comedian Hasan Minhaj has been told to hold back, but he shouldn’t
There are certainly more consequential things to be worried about than the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. The annual gala is where politicians and “the media” gather as frenemies for the night so they can rub elbows with celebs like Helen Mirren and Kerry Washington. Things like, say, the devastating devaluation of our most basic civil rights and the increasing possibility of an oncoming nuclear war. This year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to the Fourth Estate as “the enemy of the people,” says he won’t be attending, and his staff, too, will be boycotting the event. Members of the press have also agonized over attending this year—media organizations such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair cancelled their respective WHCA parties this year.
Still, the show must go on, and the Correspondents’ Association announced this week that The Daily Show comedian Hasan Minhaj will be hosting the dinner this year. “It is a tremendous honor to be a part of such a historic event even though the president has chosen not to attend this year. SAD!” said Minhaj in a statement. “Now more than ever, it is vital that we honor the First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”
Minhaj is not new to this kind of gig—just last year, his address at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner went viral because he called out a room full of Congressmembers on their failure to curb gun violence, concluding an otherwise humorous speech with a somber, impassioned call to action. “You get paid almost $200,000 a year to write rules, to make our society better,” he told the audience. “Not tweet, not tell us about your thoughts and prayers. To write rules to make our society better.”
Minhaj—a Muslim, a son of immigrants—would make the perfect candidate for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, were he given the same opportunity to deliver an honest rebuke of the current administration. However, the president of the WHCA, Jeff Mason, gave a statement to the press on Tuesday that might dash those hopes. “I was not looking for somebody who is going to roast the president in absentia; that’s not fair and that’s not the message we want to get across,” he told MSNBC. “I was looking for somebody who is funny and who is entertaining, because I want the dinner to be entertaining, but who can also speak to the message that the whole dinner is going to speak to: the importance of the free press.”
Why would they choose a comedian who so strongly lambasted Congress to its face if all they wanted was someone to make jokes about our ongoing dystopia? If anything, Mason’s statement points to a larger problem within the White House that preceded Donald Trump’s tenure as Commander-in-Chief. The Correspondents’ Association, which represents the White House Press Corps, was founded in 1914 to help protect the press’ access to the president (Woodrow Wilson back then). The dinner began in 1921, as a gesture of goodwill between the press and the White House, an attempt to recognize their vital, and often contentious, relationship. But if anything, the annual dinner now represents an obsequiousness that many reporters must adopt to gain access to the White House—a lopsided dynamic that weakens journalists' power to hold administrations accountable for their misdeeds.
It’s the very nature of this relationship that allowed President Obama get away with running an administration that was routinely evasive of the press and antagonistic towards leaks. Still, Obama attended the dinner every year, and made his self-effacing jokes, performing a friendliness to the journalistic establishment that his team never actually put in practice. His natural charm and general likability—as a man and as a politician—helped him finesse favorable coverage and less-than-critical reporting on his administration. Obama enacted a number of policies and strongly considered others (such as the recent Syria airstrikes) that align with some of the ones Trump is approving now, without the same level of press outrage in response to every decision.
So the question isn’t whether Donald Trump’s attendance matters—after all, it was the failure of comedy and satire that helped normalize him and put him into office. Some suspect, in fact, that it was President Obama’s 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner roast of Donald Trump that actually inspired our current president to run for the Oval Office. We should question the very functionality of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and challenge Minhaj to change the way it operates. His RTCA address offered a far more pointed critique of Congress than anything the press had been able to offer—the best thing he can do is go up to that podium and do it all over again.