The media elite will gather at a much-diminished White House Correspondents’ Dinner this week. The dinner grew to feature a glitzy parade of celebrities under President Obama, and has become an increasingly controversial event. This is in large part due to the entertainment.
Over the past decade, comedians Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Larry Wilmore have all delivered highly politicized remarks, with Meyers’ comments having the added distinction of directly targeting Donald Trump, who happened to be in the room at the time.
This week’s dinner will be a shell of itself given the absence of the commander in chief for the first time in 36 years. But it will also be marked by the absence of many who abhor the overly politicized nature of the event and expect more of the same partisan insults from this year’s comedian, Hasan Minhaj.
There are a host of talented comedians working today, including Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, and John Mulaney, who, while their politics does not match up with President Trump’s, are perfectly capable of entertaining without becoming stridently partisan.
Minhaj, unfortunately, is not in that category. He is a relatively unknown comedian—for good reason. His whole shtick is blatantly partisan and left-wing. Minhaj is perhaps best known for his segments on “The Daily Show” in which he referred to then-candidate Trump as “White ISIS,” claimed Trump and the overwhelming majority of Republicans are racist, and argued that conservatives should be banned from the White House.
Minhaj Is Precisely the Wrong Kind of Pick
Given that the president of the United States declined the invitation to this year’s dinner, you might think that the event’s organizers would extend an olive branch to invite him to at least attend next year’s event. White House Correspondent Association President Jeff Mason said on “Morning Joe” on April 11 that he wasn’t looking for someone who would “roast the president in absentia.” Yet he picked someone who does just that for a living.
Minhaj has also already proven that his approach to events like these is to grandstand and lecture. Last year, in remarks to the Washington Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, he performed an extremely partisan monologue that devolved into a full-blown left-wing critique of Congress. The mood in the room, which was comprised of people predisposed to agree with his political attacks, was awkward and uncomfortable. More than one audience member walked out. Minhaj even mocked those who express “thoughts and prayers” toward the victims of terrorism and crime, and claimed everyone in the room was responsible for the 2016 terrorist attack at a nightclub in Orlando.
The “punchline” of his remarks was a long-winded rant demanding gun control. He falsely asserted that Congress has effectively been bought by the National Rifle Association to the tune of $3.7 million over the past decade, and suggested that everyone in the room head to Kickstarter to raise $4 million to buy Congress back.
Even by the low standards of someone who plays a fake journalist on TV, this attempt at fact-checking was completely botched. His dollar figure was in error, but it was a revealing error: Minhaj apparently conflated donations with the fact that the NRA has 3.7 million members (itself an outdated datapoint, as they have far more today). The NRA’s political activity and strength is not because of the dollars it spends, but because it represents far more American voters than Minhaj recognizes.
This is the problem of an era in which groupthink blinds us to the way the world really is. It’s far easier to trivialize millions of American’s expressions of political action through elections and lobbyists than it is to grapple fairly with their ideas. This is the mark of a cheap shot rather than real artistry, and of bad faith argument: Minhaj assumes no honest person would believe in gun rights, so since it is an illegitimate opinion people only promote it is because they’re paid to. At its worst, this is a view that delegitimizes the American system of government because the results are not to the Left’s liking.
What the Dinner Should Do Instead
If it is to exist, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner should be an event of rare comity (and real comedy) between the press and the politicians they cover. It ought to lower the levels of acrimony and the toxic partisanship that have prevented many members of the media elite from being able to cover the Trump administration fairly.
If the dinner has any function, it ought to be a reminder of a degree of mutual respect for the leadership of the nation, the importance of a free press, and the value of the comic fool who makes us laugh at one another and ourselves. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”
Freedom of speech is one of the most important freedoms we have, and this includes the freedom to offend. The freedom to speak your mind and skewer the authorities that surround us, to blaspheme, to insult, to level a cutting jab at the most powerful, is inseparable from the individual freedoms that animate the American people. Minhaj is free to use these important rights. But there is no requirement that we listen to his unfunny insults. This is one of the reasons we, like the president, will not be attending. And for those supposedly objective members of the media elite who do, the American people will notice who applauds.