As journalists prepare to party, President Trump blasts the press

President Trump wasted no time before skewering the media at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Saturday, calling the press "fake news" as journalists less than 200 miles away in Washington, D.C. were putting on ball gowns and bow ties for the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

"Media outlets like CNN and MSNBC are fake news. Fake news." Trump said, to a chorus of boos from the crowd. "And they're sitting and they're watching in Washington. And they'd love to be with us here tonight. But they're trapped at the dinner, which will be very, very boring."

Trump's rally, held on the 100th day of his presidency to celebrate the administration's high points, was broadcast live on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on a night usually consumed by Correspondents' Association festivities. In doing so, Trump demonstrated the same ability to counter-program against competitors and take advantage of free publicity that helped propel him to the White House in November.

The symbolism of the parallel events was apparently not lost on attendees — amid the "Drain the Swamp" and "Promises Made, Promises Kept," signs was one that read "My president skipped the dinner to give us our dessert."

President Trump is the first president in several decades not to attend the dinner, where he has been mocked ruthlessly in years past. In 2011, he sat alongside journalists as comedian Seth Meyers ridiculed Trump's birther campaign, his relationship with African-Americans and his hair.

Before launching into a list of talking points promoting the White House line, Trump took the occasion to deliver a 10-minute broadside against the press, remarking on its low trust among the American people and throwing in a special aside on the finances of The New York Times.

"A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation's capital right now," Trump said. "They are gathered together for the White House Correspondents' Dinner — without the president!"

"And I could not possibly be more thrilled to be more than 100 miles away from Washington's swamp spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people," Trump said.

Trump was in full-on campaign mode as he came onstage to the bars from "I'm Proud To Be An American" swelling in the background and pumping his fist. As the music faded, shouts of "USA, USA, USA," set the atmosphere for his speech.

Then, after criticizing the media in general, Trump started in on The New York Times. He said, inaccurately, that the newspaper gave away The Boston Globe for free (it actually sold to Red Sox owner John W. Henry for $70 million) and that the newspaper apologized for its campaign coverage (in fact, it issued a letter promising to cover Trump fairly).

He criticized The Times' Manhattan headquarters ("an ugly office building in an ugly location") and said it sold its previous building ("a cathedral to journalism") in a bad business deal.

"Take the totally failing New York Times," Trump said. "Pretty soon, they'll only be on the internet. The paper's getting smaller and smaller. It's starting to look like a comic book."

The Times has addressed this criticism from Trump before. When he tweeted in January that The New York Times was "failing," the newspaper responded to him directly, saying that subscribership and audiences were at an all-time high.

He than cited several reports to denigrate the press: According to a poll from Morning Consult, about half of respondents said the political media is "out of touch with everyday Americans." He cited a Center for Public Integrity report that disclosed journalists contributed overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. And he cited a report, widely circulated among right-wing outlets from the right-leaning Media Research Center, that said the media's coverage is "89 percent negative."

"If the media's job is to be honest and tell the truth, than I think we would all agree that the media deserves a very, big fat failing grade," he said.

As he finished his critique of the press, he gestured forward, toward the cameras in the arena and the journalists operating them. He told the gathered audience that "their agenda is not your agenda" before making one last reference to the party in Washington, D.C.

"Look at the media back there," Trump said, as the crowd booed. "They would actually rather be here, I have to tell you."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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