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Washington Correspondents' Association Dinner lesson: Let's stick to journalism

Our view: The flap over correspondents’ dinner may be much ado, but journalists don’t have to set themselves up to look like celebrity-worshipping elites either

For those who perceive journalists as arrogant and condescending with no self-awareness whatsoever, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has long been the gift that keeps on giving. No matter how one feels about Michelle Wolf, the comedian whose performance at the Saturday dinner got a thumbs down from President Donald Trump, the notion that the First Amendment or journalism generally benefits from the country watching a hotel ballroom full of black-tie guests hobnobbing with the D.C. blue book of politics, not to mention Hollywood A-listers (and B-listers), and then settling in for a good skewering of all assembled by a left-leaning stand-up is delusional.

The only thing more absurd than all the Monday morning quarterbacking about Ms. Wolf’s performance — (Was it funny? Too mean? Too insulting to Sarah Huckabee Sanders?) — is President Trump tweeting about how offensive he found it for two straight days. The dinner is "DEAD as we know it,” the president posted Monday on Twitter. “This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for. FAKE NEWS is alive and well and beautifully represented on Saturday night!" This suddenly strong sense of decorum came from the fellow who said anchor Megyn Kelly, after a tough debate question, had blood “coming out of her wherever” and described MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski as “Low IQ Mika” who was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when he saw her in 2016 at his Florida resort.

If the dinner is “dead,” as Mr. Trump claims, it isn’t Ms. Wolf who killed it. What should kill it (but probably won’t given the staying power the event has had) is how far it’s image has gotten away from its core purpose of supporting excellence in journalism and raising money for college scholarships. To be sure, the event still celebrates journalism, but the broader public is probably altogether unaware of that fact. The addition of celebrities and cable TV coverage are what made people take note of this Washington institution in the first place, but they also created the wrong impression. President Trump hasn’t diminished the event by staying away for two straight years, he’s done the organizers a favor by pointing out how weird and cringe-worthy it’s all gotten. The whole thing was worse when Barack Obama was president — if only because he was a celebrity magnet himself. With Mr. Trump’s absence, the celebrity quotient is way down, more journalists are there, and, notwithstanding the present controversy, the attention of those who attend has shifted back to the core purpose of the program.

Confession time: The Baltimore Sun has played a small role in all this, and not only as regular participants (including this year), along with representatives of some other Tronc media outlets. It was one of our own, the late Michael Kelly, who helped raise the celebrity quotient by escorting former Lt. Col. Oliver North’s secretary Fawn Hall to the dinner in 1987 — described as the “social coup of the year” by the Los Angeles Times — and then bringing Donna Rice of Gary Hart fame the year after. Mr. Kelly, who went on to become editor of The Atlantic magazine and died covering the second Iraq War in 2003, had started his career booking guests for “Good Morning America” and knew full well how news and celebrity can intersect.

That President Trump loves to knock the non-rightward-tilted media as “fake news” and set up journalists as enemies of the state — and actually used the phrase “enemy of the American people” in one of his more memorable Twitter rants on the subject — is just as immaterial as Ms. Wolf’s performance. The image of journalists sucking up to a president and his staff during the Obama presidency might be even worse than appearing to mock them during Mr. Trump’s. That’s not to suggest that news gatherers can’t have cordial and polite relationships with those they cover, it’s just foolish to be caught up in the pageantry of a televised dinner with them. What’s the takeaway for the viewer? How noble are these reporters for eating a fancy meal and renting tuxedos? How independent? How professional?

The fact is journalists, including the vast majority of those who were in attendance Saturday, take their jobs very seriously and seek to fulfill their Fourth Estate role of holding government and society’s powerful accountable. On Monday, at least nine journalists from around the world — including a BBC reporter — were killed in Afghanistan by suicide bombers claiming ties to the Islamic State.

Dark day for reporters as 9 killed in Afghan bombing »

The conversation today should be about those men and women, not about whether a comedian’s performance was a “disgrace,” or whether the person who labeled it as such, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (who lied about matters great and small, including Inauguration Day crowd size) deserves to regarded as the arbiter of good taste.

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