The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has little to do with the press, and much ado about nothing

President Barack Obama delivers remarks with the help of comedic actor Keegan-Michael Key during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, D.C., April 25, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Michael Oreskes, then The New York Times’s Washington bureau chief, had had enough. The White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner had become an embarrassment to journalism, an unseemly extravaganza whose lofty goals had been overshadowed by the spectacle of reporters in black tie cavorting with second- and third-tier celebrities. So Oreskes pulled the Times out of the event.

“The purpose of honoring good journalism with awards and raising money for scholarships has become lost in the circus,” Oreskes wrote at the time. “The association each year is seen around the country as host to a Bacchanalia that confirms everyone’s worst sense of Washington. We should not be a part of this.”

 

That was 1999, which also happens to be the year I wrote my first column calling for the abolition of the event. In the intervening years the dinner has only gotten worse, an evermore over-the-top Hollywood-obsessed carnival replete with endless parties, pre-parties, after-parties, and brunches. But despite the best efforts of a chorus of critics, the dinner, often referred to as “nerd prom,” has proven hard to kill. The hand-wringing has been particularly painful this year in light of President Trump’s disdain for the press, which he has referred to, usually on Twitter, as “enemies of the people,” “dishonest,” and “evil.”

Trump eased the dilemma somewhat when he announced on February 25 that he wouldn’t attend this year’s dinner. But his move hasn’t quieted the debate over whether the dinner really needs to continue and, if so, in what form.

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“There are good reasons not to go to this dinner as it now exists,” says Oreskes, now NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director, as well as a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers. “Who is in the White House isn’t one of those reasons.” At the same time, he adds, “it is ironic that some of the same people who turned the dinner into an embarrassing Bacchanalia decided they no longer liked the dinner when they disapproved of the president.”

 

Despite the best efforts of a chorus of critics, the dinner, often referred to as “nerd prom,” has proven hard to kill.

 

The dinner, which debuted in 1921, didn’t start as a spectacle. For many years it was a low-key affair at which journalists mingled with sources. That certainly was the case when I attended my first in the early 1970s. Los Angeles Times Washington columnist Doyle McManus recalls when the height of excitement was bringing an assistant secretary of state as a guest.

The metamorphosis began in 1987 when journalist Michael Kelly, then with The Baltimore Sun, brought Fawn Hall, the star of the Iran-contra scandal, as his guest. Kelly had no idea what he was about to unleash. He was just following his boss’s request that he bring someone who would get the paper some attention.

Thus began an ever-escalating scramble by news outlets to add celebrities of varying pedigrees to their guest lists, many of whom with absolutely no connection to public policy or journalism. As McManus says, “Try and find a White House correspondent at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. There ought to be a scavenger hunt.”

 

(Years after his fraught date with Hall, I asked Kelly, who died in 2003 covering the Iraq War for The Atlantic, what he had wrought. He replied that the problem wasn’t so much the dinner as the fact that it was an “accurate reflection of Washington journalism,” which he found to be “smug and arrogant and self-important.”)

When I attended in 1999, one of the most-ogled celebrities that year was John F. Kennedy Jr., then publishing George magazine. One of Kennedy’s guests was Larry Flynt, the noted pornographer. By 2012, when Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan were seated at the same table, the shark had been totally jumped.

“It looks awful. It makes us look foolish and celebrity-crazy,” McManus says. “Ordinary Americans look at this on C-SPAN and say, ‘This can’t be right.’”

 

Try and find a White House correspondent at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. There ought to be a scavenger hunt.”

 

On the other hand, he adds, “I have to disclose that thanks to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I’ve had the pleasure of having drinks with Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren.” And despite my own qualms about the affair, I have to admit that I hardly regret having had the opportunity for a delightful conversation with Jane Seymour.

There have been some unforgettable moments; one being then-President Obama’s brutal takedown at the 2011 dinner of one Donald J. Trump. Some have suggested that Trump’s humiliation prompted him to run for president, although Trump waves off that speculation, professing that he had a good time.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert eviscerated both President George W. Bush and the press corps, depicting the latter as completely ineffectual. The rattled Correspondents’ Association retreated far in the opposite direction the following year, signing up safer-than-safe (and long-forgotten) impressionist Rich Little as the talent. Last year, at one of the numerous after-parties, reporters for Fox News and The Huffington Post got into an actual brawl.  

 

So can the dinner be converted into something less demeaning, particularly at a moment when the press remains under more scrutiny than ever? “Dare to be boring,” advises McManus, a former LA Times Washington bureau chief who preferred the dinner in its duller incarnation. “I’d like to see a devolution into something less glitzy and more wonky.”

Even arch-critic Oreskes is open to the repeal-and-replace model. “Twenty years ago I suggested we make it a lunch. Still seems like a good idea,” he says. “Even a dinner could be OK. There are plenty of other journalistic dinners that don’t leave such a bad taste.”

A good sign: Instead of pursuing big names, CNN plans to invite journalism students this year.

Last month, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote a piece titled “Cancel dinner plans. Send ‘nerd prom’ to the history books.” Would she, I asked her, be open to a reprieve if the dinner were stripped of its wretched excess?

“I’d like to think so. It would have to be taken down to the studs, though,” she replied, quickly adding, “and I’m not talking about Ryan Gosling and Dev Patel.”

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Rem Rieder is a former USA Today media columnist and before that the longtime editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review.