- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2017

It was an affair marked by the first absence of the chief executive since Ronald Reagan was in the hospital in 1981 — his life hanging in the balance after an assassin’s bullet missed his heart by inches.

President Trump’s absence Saturday from the White House Correspondents Dinner hung over the annual affair, typically marked by posh parties, celebrity showings and the mixing of Washington’s elite.

Instead of attending the dinner, Mr. Trump held a jumbo rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he touted his successes in his first 100 days and echoed his campaign calls for building a border wall and making America great again.

Movie stars and politicians were notably missing from Saturday’s red carpet at the Washington Hilton. Yet even in the absence of Mr. Trump and his entire Cabinet, the Hilton’s red carpet held many media and political figures — many of whom sounded a note of warning and a defense of the free press at a time of antipathy between the executive and the fourth estate.

“It’s more important than ever that journalists be aggressive and fair,” CNN’s Van Jones told The Washington Times on the red carpet. “If somebody says the sky is plaid, you’ve got to challenge them on that.

“At the same time, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the press to see itself as an adversary of government. It’s supposed to be a check upon government. More professionalism is needed, and we need the best and brightest to come to this field.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who served in the Clinton administration, said she was attending due to her belief in the free press.

“I think it’s important for people to know what’s going on,” Mrs. Albright said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton told The Times that he looked forward to many jokes at the president’s expense. However, Mr. Sharpton said the current atmosphere of division can be overcome “depending on the tone that is set in Washington.”

“It’s disappointing that the president is not here,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told The Times. “I hope he comes next year, because I think he’d have a lot of fun.”

As the dinner’s aim is to award scholarships to the next generation of journalists, CNN’s Jake Tapper called on future news writers to discern the difference between fact and fiction, as well as to brace for a career of hardship.

“Rejection is part of the business,” he said. “If you can’t take someone calling you fake news, then maybe you want to find another line of work.”

Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said at the outset of the black-tie dinner that it had sold out regardless of Mr. Trump’s absence.

“The press is still in the White House Briefing Room, and we are still on Air Force One,” Mr. Mason said, nudging aside fears that Mr. Trump would shutter press access. “Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the rhetoric from the president about who we are and what we do.

“Freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy. Seeking to undermine that is dangerous to a healthy republic,” Mr. Mason said. “We are not ‘fake news,’ ‘failing news organizations’ and ‘the enemy of the American people,’” he said, drawing a standing ovation from the Hilton crowd.

Mr. Mason praised Washington Post stalwarts Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, saying the duo were an inspiration for this year’s 23 scholars, who will apprentice alongside the White House press corps for the coming year.

The District was represented by winners Anthony B. Brown Jr. of Howard University and Teniola Ayomide Ayoola of George Washington University.

Mr. Mason introduced Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj, the 31-year-old comedian who was tapped to entertain the event.

“Who would have thought that with everything going on that a Muslim would be standing on this stage?” Mr. Minhaj said. “No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant.” (He was, in fact, born in San Francisco.)

The comedian made light of Mr. Trump’s alleged ties to Russia as well as his aversion to alcohol. He also made awkward jests about Mr. Trump “bombing too much” of late, referring to military action in Syria. However, the joke received a tepid response from the Hilton’s crowd.

“In the age of Trump, I know you guys have to be more perfect than ever, because you are how the president gets his news,” Mr. Minhaj said. “When one of you messes up, he blames your entire group.

“And now you know what it feels like to be a minority,” he said. “Only in American can a first-generation Indian Muslim kid get up on this stage and make fun of the president.”

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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