On Saturday night, Donald Trump will be meeting with screaming supporters at a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania.
Back in Washington, the elites of the media world will be hobnobbing in black-tie with members of Congress and other well-heeled guests at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
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Trump, who is the first president to boycott the dinner since Jimmy Carter, will likely make hay over the contrast, celebrating his 100th day in office and declaring victory in his self-declared battle against a media he’s called a “danger to the country.”
On the other side of this battle of images on Saturday night will be Jeff Mason, the soft-spoken wire service reporter who heads the correspondents’ association and thus oversees the dinner.
Normally, this would be a night of triumph for the association’s president – a time to don a tuxedo and sit beside the most powerful man in the world as the president and the people who cover him exchange gentle barbs and affirm, in toasts, their commitment to the country and the principles of the First Amendment.
But that’s not what Mason is facing.
The 40-year-old Mason, who is known for his quiet diligence and straight-down-the-middle reporting as White House correspondent for Reuters, is hardly the portrait of the self-indulgent media elite that Trump seeks to lampoon. He’s preternaturally calm and soft-spoken. Even as he’s had to contend with crisis after confrontation in the White House briefing room, he’s kept such a low profile that some free-speech advocates have singled him out for criticism.
But his stewardship of the dinner will face inevitable scrutiny, from his decision to invite the Watergate duo of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to present the association’s awards to his choice of Muslim-American comic Hasan Minhaj as the evening’s entertainment.
Bash Trump too directly and play into his own narrative of war; fail to stand up for journalistic prerogatives and look like a feckless wimp.
“I didn’t anticipate that it would be the level of advocacy we’ve had to employ, at least three years ago when I was elected,” Mason acknowledged in his typically understated manner.
Indeed, when the 40-year-old Mason — who has been at Reuters for 17 years, starting as an airline-industry reporter in Germany — was elected to head the association, he knew he’d have a busier year than most: He would straddle the transition between Barack Obama’s White House to the next president’s.
But then Trump shook the political universe and, in the process, threatened to upend the media world as well. Suddenly, Mason was called upon to defend the traditional media role and practices, from preserving the tradition of having pool reporters cover every public event to determining who counts as a legitimate White House reporter as Trump’s administration seeks to invite more unconventional outlets into the briefing room.
Since even before Election Day, Mason has taken flak not only from the reporters, correspondents, producers and media executives looking to him as their advocate in the face of one of the most press-hostile presidents in history; but he’s also fielded attacks from the White House itself — such as frustrations over the lack of “decorum” among the White House correspondents. It’s a precarious balance. In recent months, Mason has become a more ubiquitous presence on television and on media panels across town, often talking about the president, the press, and his role as arbiter between the two.
Trump’s team suggested moving the daily White House briefing from the White House to a separate room, potentially in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the way. They also expressed reservations about a protective pool, refusing to allow reporters to follow the president around until he was formally inaugurated. In the early days of the administration, the White House was notoriously slow in sending out transcripts and texts of executive orders, leaving reporters to simply transcribe photos of the orders as Trump held them up to display after signing.
On every one of those issues, it fell to Mason and the board to explain to the new administration why it was in everyone’s benefit to uphold some of the media traditions Trump’s administration seemed so ready to break. And so far, many of those traditions have survived – something Mason sees as a victory.
Mason, he and the White House say, has both advocated for the role of the media while selling the White House on why they should want reporters on the White House grounds and following the president around as part of a protective pool.
Some journalists have grumbled that they wish Mason would be more aggressive in his dealings with the White House, arguing that the president and his staff have set off such unprecedented attacks on the press, and transparency, that Mason should hit them harder. After some outlets, including POLITICO, were blocked from attending a briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer in February, Poynter’s chief media critic James Warren
“For sure, the association statement drew some supportive comments from members on an association listserv. But, rest assured, there were others who rolled their eyes and simply saw the statement as the dictionary definition of ‘weenie.’ They include some past presidents of the association with whom I touched base,” Warren wrote. “It was disappointing and suggested an underlying craving by some for peace and moderation and press-White House harmony. Intentional or not, it suggested how a bully can intimate his victims and make some of them cower.”
But those who work closest with Mason said that his quiet modus operandi is actually the perfect way to approach the administration: anything more aggressive wouldn’t end well.
“It’s a mistake to confuse his calm demeanor with an absence of fight,” said WHCA board member and Yahoo News White House correspondent Olivier Knox. “Just because he doesn’t drop a lot of f-bombs doesn’t mean he’s not fighting for the press corps.”
Neither Mason nor the White House would discuss in detail their off-the-record conversations and negotiations — he and the WHCA board are in constant contact with the White House discussing everything from basic logistics to issues of transparency.
But Mason says behind the scenes he’s been known to if not raise hell, at least raise heck.
“I wouldn’t necessarily use the words ‘blown up’ but I’ve been in meetings with them where voices have been raised and it wasn’t just their voices being raised,” Mason said.
Born to a military family in Germany and raised in Colorado, Mason attended Northwestern University Medill School of journalism for both a bachelor’s and master’s degree before embarking on a Fulbright grant in Germany. Soon he was covering the airline industry from Frankfurt before moving to Brussels, Belgium, to cover the European Union. He came back to the United States to cover the 2008 election and has been in Washington ever since.
Veterans of the White House press corps have noted that any presidential transition can be trying. When Bill Clinton’s team took over in 1993, the press team infamously locked the door between the upper and lower press areas, meaning reporters could not freely walk into the press secretary’s office to ask questions, setting off the tone of a testy relationship. But the 2017 transition had its own special challenge. Mason and many of his supporters in the briefing room see it as a victory that, for now at least, the briefings happen every day in the James S. Brady briefing room, that there is a protective pool, and that the pool gets invited to ask questions at “pool sprays” during some meetings.
It’s a sentiment that Spicer — the man on the other side of many negotiations with Mason — echoes as well.
“If you are a member of press corps you could have had no better champion than Jeff Mason in last few months,” Spicer said. “The board really does a good job representing folks from the media. You always want more but I think they have done a very good job. While we obviously don’t agree with them on all issues, they do an effective job of making the argument on behalf of the media.”
Mason has also had the unenvious task of planning this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner, the first in decades which the president and his entire staff have chosen to boycott. The simple act of picking the evening’s entertainment became a political minefield as Mason had to navigate choosing a comedian that, as Mason said, wouldn’t “roast” the president in absentia. But a mild, cautious performance could damage the dinner as well, opening up criticism that it was too soft on a president who has been anything but soft on the media — and who is hosting his own competing event at a rally in Pennsylvania.
In addition to balancing a new dinner, where the famous “Watergate” journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been tapped to speak and hand out in awards in lieu of the president, Mason has also had to lead the search for a new executive director of the association when Julia Whiston leaves the position after more than two decades. (Former WHCA president Steve Thomma was tapped as the new executive director in April.)
“I think Jeff Mason has been pitch perfect in the way he’s handled it,” said former WHCA president and National Journal correspondent George Condon. “He’s had people egg him on to try and be more provocative and he has avoided it. He’s kept his eye on what he should keep it on and he’s had more challenge than any other president I can think of since I started covering the White House in 1982 and has handled it without a misstep.”
And though this Saturday will feel like the culmination of a term, a celebratory dinner of sorts for Mason’s tenure, it’s not actually the end. His term runs through July.
“When the dinner’s over, I’ll just be a little less permanently stressed,” he said.
Read more : http://www.politico.com/story/2017/04/29/trump-whca-boycott-jeff-mason-237771