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A Florida journalist finds catharsis in Sam Bee’s celebration of those who work in the business of (real) news

Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner



The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is often referred to as "nerd prom." All those reporters, used to rocking whatever sensible clothes and haircuts let them get the job done with minimum fuss, all suddenly dressed up in formal attire. If the WHCD is nerd prom, I'm not sure what to call this, the brainchild of Full Frontal host Samantha Bee and her executive producer/showrunner, Jo Miller, but here we all are, standing in line in our requested "cocktail" attire, waiting to be checked in to the "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner," a river of jewel-toned dresses shining in the unforgiving sun.

From where I stand, I can see the tented red-carpet area. Behind me, a woman dressed in a long evening dress is wearing diamonds, while in front of me, two attractive men are sporting tuxedoes. I'm glad I decided to buy a new outfit for this gig: I chose a 1950s-style swing dress with a petticoat underneath so full I resemble an upside-down margarita glass. As the sweat drips down my neck and begins to sting, I realize there must be nickel in the costume rhinestones around my neck, in my ears, and around my wrist. I'm breaking out in a rash. I'm going to need to ditch the jewelry as soon as possible.

But all around me, despite the fact that it's over 90 degrees and no one is going to be let in early, everyone is in a fantastic mood. Just a couple of blocks away, a large crowd has gathered for the march to defend the environment, so the city is full of protest signs that ask the president to consider the earth before he makes any more of his notoriously stupid decisions.

The president isn't in town. He should be at the official White House Correspondents' Dinner, an annual fund-raising gala at which the press roasts the president and – usually – the president demonstrates his sense of humor by mocking them back. But not this guy.

In January, even before Trump announced that he wasn't going to attend the official correspondents' dinner, Bee announced her counter-programming event, a chance to roast this thin-skinned president who cannot take a joke. And, because the past few years have been bad for journalists around the world in terms of being attacked, the proceeds of Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner will go to benefit the Committee to Protect Journalists. (At the end of the night, Bee announced that the dinner had raised $200,000 for the CPJ.)

The line moves, and, after passing through two different layers of security, I'm in. The rules for this event are a little different than one might expect. For one thing, I'm not allowed to take in a big bag with me, nor am I allowed to bring any kind of recording equipment. But I also cannot bring my iPad into the show to take notes; it's been determined that the lights from all the journalists' equipment will be too distracting. So, in a mad scramble on the morning of the event, I found a small bag with just enough room for a pad of paper and my favorite fountain pen, a back-up pen, and several ink cartridges.

  • Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

As soon as I'm through security, I'm met by a uniformed server who offers me a glass of champagne and an hors d'oeuvre. I get out of the sun and walk into the air-conditioned foyer, where most everyone has retreated. Soon, I'm spotting lots of well-known liberal writers and humorists. Lizz Winstead. Van Jones. Jonathan Capehart. But it's when Ashley Nicole Black, one of Sam Bee's correspondents, walks within a foot of me that I take notice. I give her a big smile, and before I can stop myself, I do the bowing motion made famous by Garth and Wayne in Wayne's World: "I'm not worthy!" She looks embarrassed. I tell myself to snap out of it. I've earned my right to be here, although like a lot of women I know, I still struggle with feeling like a fraud.

My invitation to cover this event came because I've just completed a big profile of Sam Bee and Jo Miller for the June print issue of Marie Claire. I had also interviewed Bee in January 2016 for The Guardian, before Full Frontal debuted, before anyone knew how strong a chord the show would strike with the American public. Since its debut, Full Frontal's ratings have gone up 175 percent, and ratings since the election have risen more sharply than Bee's male cohorts at their various late-night gigs.

An usher wearing a black T-shirt that says FREE PRESS shows me to my seat. Up on the empty stage, stage right, there are eight Ionian columns with music equipment in front of them, and on stage left, a podium with the presidential seal, in front of a dozen U.S. flags and another group of columns.

The show begins with a video and the crowd bursts into wild applause as they recognize Allison Janney back in her role as The West Wing White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. Cregg is dealing with the collection of media that have been given credentials by the Trump White House, and the jokes are coming so fast that I have a momentary sense of panic as I realize that there is no way in hell I'm going to be able to write them down in real time. Cregg looks into the crowd of "reporters" waiting to ask her a question and chooses a young man who appears to be a teenager: "You're 18 and wearing your father's suit. You're obviously from Breitbart."

"Doesn't having a female host for this event demonstrate a clear anti-white male bias?" the kid asks.

Cregg responds: "Absolutely not. Sam Bee doesn't have anything against white guys. She just can't tell you apart and thinks you all know one another."

(I get the context of the joke, which is Trump's thinking that White House correspondent April Ryan knows all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But I also flash back to a conversation I had just a few weeks ago. During a general discussion of an article I'd just written about the use of "they" as a singular pronoun when gender isn't known, an older man called that "a load of PC crap." I suggested we change the subject.

"We can change the subject," he said angrily, "but I'm telling you right now. The most persecuted people in America right now are white men.")

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