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Turmoil grows over White House correspondents' dinner

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Washington (AFP) - It is supposed to be a light-hearted gathering of journalists, celebrities and the president, where differences are put aside for good-natured jibes.

But amid a bitter war of words between the Trump administration and the Fourth Estate, plans for the 2017 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in April have been thrown into turmoil.

After President Donald Trump's repeated barbs against the "dishonest media" and "fake news," some journalists and media outlets are thinking twice about their participation in the April 29 dinner, a tradition that dates back to 1921.

"How can media clink glasses with a White House that makes clear its contempt for press freedom and its admiration for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin methods?" tweeted David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic.

The association, which organizes the annual event that raises money for journalism scholarships, said the dinner will be held as planned.

The White House has indicated it is on Trump's calendar -- despite some doubts about whether he will attend.

Opinion editor Robert Schlesinger of US News & World Report said that regardless of what Trump does, "the media should boycott the dinner."

"News organizations should buy tickets as usual (it's for a good cause) but make other plans that night and if he does attend, let the ratings- and crowd-obsessed narcissist freak address an empty ballroom," Schlesinger wrote.

Ironically, some analysts say the 2011 dinner in which then president Barack Obama skewered Trump became a pivotal moment in the billionaire's decision to make a White House run.

In recent years, the dinner has become a star-studded event attracting A-list celebrities ranging from George Clooney to Helen Mirren to Lindsay Lohan, with politics mainly an afterthought.

This year, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have canceled parties they traditionally host as part of the hoopla surrounding the dinner.

Also, many stars are avoiding the event this year and no "headliner" comedian has committed so far, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

- 'Stick a fork in it' -

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said the glitzy party and related events around it no longer seem appropriate.

"Once merely embarrassing and ridiculous, the annual White House correspondents' dinner is poised to tip over into journalistic self-abasement," she wrote. "It's time to stick a silver-plated fork in it."

Slate correspondent Jacob Weisberg echoed those sentiments, saying in a tweet: "Please cancel the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Unseemly spectacle, totally at odds with the press holding administration accountable."

Meanwhile, late-night comedy show host Samantha Bee is planning an alternative event the same evening, "welcoming journalists and non-irritating celebrities from around the world."

All proceeds from that event -- dubbed "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner" -- will go to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Bee said.

Although all presidents have had scrapes with the press corps, relations between the media and the White House are at what some see as an all-time low.

After some news organizations called out Trump for "lies" on a variety of topics, the president disparaged journalists as "among the most dishonest human beings on earth."

His top aide Stephen Bannon called the news media "the opposition party."

Association president Jeff Mason of Reuters said the dinner would be held as usual "to celebrate the First Amendment (on freedom of the press) and the role an independent press plays in a healthy republic."

- Dining with 'the enemy' -

The pro-Trump news outlet Daily Caller reported there was "chatter" that the president may skip the gathering, in an article titled "Will Donald Trump Dine With The Enemy?"

Brent Decker, a former newspaper editor who authored "The Conservative Case for Trump," suggested he steer clear of the dinner.

"I don't think #PresidentTrump should go into the coliseum to wrestle with the wild animals," Decker tweeted.

Daily Beast editor Lloyd Grove argued that the show should go on.

"Despite aesthetic and even principled objections to this annual rite of spring, the dinner continues to serve a valid journalistic interest. Journalism can frequently be a messy enterprise," Grove wrote.

But Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy said the event serves little purpose and "should have been canceled a long time ago. "

"The public sees Washington journalists as out-of-touch, well-heeled insiders more concerned about access than they are in holding the powerful to account," Kennedy said.

Deborah Potter, a former CBS News correspondent who heads the NewsLab training center, said the event has long been "awkward" and "raises legitimate questions about coziness between reporters and their sources."

She said that the dinner "has become a creature of the White House, at which journalists take on the role of bit players in service to those in power. That's not OK under any administration."

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