Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: The Dinner That Went Mad

Posted at 11:38 am, May 8th, 2009
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The White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, which takes place tomorrow night, is an orgy of self-congratulation, the ultimate black-tied manifestation of the dangerous coziness between Washington’s journalistic elites and the people they cover.

Its defining moment came in 2006, when attendees responded with stunned, sullen incomprehension as comedian Stephen Colbert delivered a magnificently brutal critique of a delusional president and his stenographic courtiers.

And whatever public-service function the dinner ever served has been entirely subsumed by the unseemly competition over which “news” organization can bring the most shockingly inappropriate celebrity guests.

But it doesn’t have to be quite so gross. And it shouldn’t be. An event that is widely seen as defining of the White House press corps — at which the main attraction, no matter who is in the audience, will always be the guaranteed presence of the president of the United States — should hold itself to a higher standard.

Things really went downhill when the organizers a few years back apparently made a conscious decision to reward groups whose guests added to the Vegas-like glam of the event, at the expense of lower-key news organizations that could actually use the evening for source development.

Space is limited at the Washington Hilton, so ticket distribution is consequential. The way the association prioritizes things now, People and Glamour get entire tables in the middle of the room for their gaudy guests, the networks get as many as eight tables in the front for anyone they want — and some regional and trade news organizations can barely scrounge a couple tickets on the balcony.

There is actually something to be said for hard-working journalists having a fun and popular event to which they can invite their mid-level and high-level sources. Although excessive chumminess is a serious problem among the elites, most reporters benefit greatly from getting to know their sources a bit better — and vice versa. Indeed, “source maintenance” is sometimes a tricky business, and a swanky dinner invite is a much less objectionable way of getting it done that than, say, a puff piece.

By contrast, there is zero journalistic value to having Ashton Kutcher or the cast of Gossip Girls in attendance. Zero.

So here are three ways the correspondents association could redeem its dinner next year:

1) Reform ticket distribution. Stop offering a disproportionate number of tickets to organizations that don’t actually cover the White House — or any other part of the federal government, for that matter. Limit the number of tables granted to the mega news organizations. Instead, be more generous to hard-working news outfits that will take advantage of the opportunity to advance their journalism. Publish the table-allocation rules and the disposition of tables on the association’s Web site. The current lack of transparency — from a media organization — seems particularly hypocritical.

2) Better yet, move to a larger locale, like the new Washington Convention Center, and let members and their organizations buy as many tickets as they want. (The association does use some of the proceeds of the dinner to fund scholarships; so more tickets would presumably also mean more scholarships.)

3) Discourage organizations from bringing guests who don’t contribute to the journalistic mission of the event.

Oh, and one more thing: Bring back Stephen Colbert. Every year, if he’ll come. A little truthiness serum would be to everyone’s benefit.

In the meantime, however, the excitement is building over what Twitterers are calling nerdprom (would that it were so). Washington media doyenne Tammy Haddad has even launched a new Web site breathlessly chronicling the before, during and after of the dinner and its spin-off social events.

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News that there are actually more celebrities expected this year, as “Hollywood types didn’t like George W. Bush or his policies, so they didn’t flood to the dinner during the past few years of Bush’s tenure.”

He notes: “The New York Times is boycotting the event for the second year in a row. Times execs say the dinner is too oriented to currying favor with big shots and gives a bad impression of the media cozying up to administration insiders. This line of criticism is sure to increase as the guest list gets more attention.”

Patrick Gavin writes for Politico that the graybeards are saying the dinner ain’t what it used to be.

“‘This one may be reaching past its prime,’ said Qorvis’ Chuck Conconi, who spent years covering the event for Washingtonian and The Washington Post. ‘It’s one hell of an evening, but I think that it’s overkill. … I don’t think it serves a purpose other than being a kind of cheerleading for journalists. … It’s a lot of strutting and showmanship.’…

“‘Back in the Pleistocene Age — before C-SPAN and Clinton — it was a determinedly nonglitzy affair,’ Newsweek’s Howard Fineman said in an e-mail… Guests were supposed to be newsworthy or behind-the-news types. My first bureau chief at Newsweek, the legendary Mel Elfin, used to advise against trying to bring big-name guests. Better to bring a midlevel person who might really appreciate it.’

“But after the late Michael Kelly, then with The Baltimore Sun, invited Iran-Contra news hottie Fawn Hall as a bit of a goof, the glitz was turned on full throttle.

“‘I still invited presidential wannabes,’ said Fineman, ‘but I happily began veering off into Hollywood-on-the-Potomac: Alec Baldwin and his then-wife Kim Basinger, Michael Douglas, Bo Derek and Meg Ryan. … I admit to enjoying it all.’…

“‘Compared to 30 years ago, the dinner has become a goofy, mashed-up free-for-all that has little in common with its original purpose: a chance for White House print reporters to take a source out to an ‘off the record’ dinner,’ said WHCA Dinner veteran Carol Joynt, who currently chronicles Washington social life for the New York Social Diary website. ‘But everybody loves it when the circus comes to town, and this is the Washington media’s circus.’”

Here’s my washingtonpost.com coverage from last year (Party of the Damned) and 2007 (A Delusional Dinner.)

I’ll have more about this year’s dinner on Monday, either here or there or both. (UPDATE: See my washingtonpost.com blog post, Funny Speech, Dismal Dinner.)



10 Responses to “The Dinner That Went Mad”

  1. Robert MacMillan says:

    Excellent commentary. I concur. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Steve Daley says:

    Here’s another viewpoint on the dinner.

  3. Libby Spencer says:

    Bless you Dan. You are quite possibly the last remaining honest voice able to break through the vapid chatter of the Village elite.

  4. Scott Karambis says:

    Came across this by accident. Well, twitter accident and immediately impressed. Deft, cutting, insightful. Count me as a fan. You’re officially another channel on my media junkie tour. Though WHCD dinner is probably a particularly egregious example, it’s a vice likely shared by most trade associations. And you’d think that traditional journalists would be interested in representing their credibility and value these days.

  5. Suzanne Bates says:

    Events like the White House dinner just leave those of us on the outside feeling even more distanced from the national press, who are supposedly our watchdogs of the federal government. And it confirms the criticism that the national media are not the outsiders they purport to be, but are instead the ultimate insiders — especially when it becomes is a celebrity-fest. Thank you for your insightful column.

  6. Randy Slovic says:

    When newspapers are slashing jobs and real investigative reporting has been eliminated, it’s a total disgrace that there are enough White House correspondents to fill this hall. The White House press corps should be reduced by 90% and the rest should be sent out to do an honest days work of reporting. Then next year the dinner can be held at Wendy’s.

  7. Maddie07 says:

    Is it possible that they (Washington press and professional party attendees) do not even KNOW how silly and unprofessional they look? I just saw a series of photos from tonight with at least 10 government people and newsers…posing giddy and all, with Paris Hilton.

    Looked like the Golden Globes to me. Are you sure this was a correspondents dinner?

  8. DrewB says:

    They’re calling this celebrity-choked nightmare “nerdprom”? Please. Get over yourselves. Maybe it was a nerdprom back in the days when, y’know, honest-to-God reporters and politicians were the only ones in attendance. When you drag in Tom & Katie, Ashton & Demi and God knows who else, it’s Hollywood.
    These people wouldn’t know a nerdprom if you gave them an hour’s headstart on writing a definition.

  9. Sheila says:

    I especially like the idea of an annual “truthiness” message from Stephen Colbert. It feels like these folks have still learned nothing. I saw a few scenes of this event on the news yesterday and shuddered. It’s really appalling.

  10. Why Did the Washington Post Sack Dan Froomkin? - City Desk - Washington City Paper says:

    [...] columns, which generally got published on the Nieman Watchdog blog, including the columnist’s takedown of the White House Correspondents Association [...]

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