The Party’s Over  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

The Party’s Over    

It’s time to shut down the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Posted May 3, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Steve Scully of C-SPAN, the incoming president of the White House Correspondents' Association, says he wants to make sure the group's annual dinner/celebrityfest doesn't become "too Hollywood."

"We don't want it to become an Oscar night," he told Editor & Publisher.

Well, guess what, Steve. It's a little late. That train left the station a long, long time ago.

This dinner has been an embarrassment for years. It's well past time to shut it down. It's a vivid symbol, like we need another one, of what's so very wrong with elite Washington journalism.

Years ago, the dinner was a low-key event where Washington journalists entertained their sources. The game changed in 1987 when the late Michael Kelly, then with the Baltimore Sun, snagged Iran/contra It Girl Fawn Hall as one of the Sun's guests.

The battle for the get was on.

And what an innocent time that now seems, with today's headlong rush by distinguished news organizations that should know better competing furiously to line up celebrity dates.

Don't get me wrong. I like celebrities as much as the next guy. I'm a big fan of this year's correspondents' dinner star of stars, George Clooney (although I'm not sure he's ever been as good as he was in "Out of Sight"). In fact, I still can't see why I couldn't have been George Clooney. And of all the things I've been accused of, being anti-fun isn't one of them.

So what's the big deal?

The problem is that this black tie underscores the notion that journalists are part of a wealthy elite, completely out of touch with ordinary Americans – their audience. (That's ridiculous, of course, given the fact that far too many journalists at smaller papers work for hideously low salaries.) And panting furiously after these name and semi-name guests is simply demeaning.

If that isn't enough, there's the scrambling to get into the exclusive Bloomberg after-party. Please.

Then-New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes eloquently made the case for abolishing this abomination in 1999 when he decided the Times wouldn't participate in the dinner that year.

"The purpose of honoring good journalism with awards and raising money for scholarships has become lost in the circus," Oreskes said. "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 year's star attraction was the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who was there as a journalist (he was running George magazine at the time). His date? Larry Flynt.

That's all you need to know.

That same year I asked Kelly – an extremely distinguished journalist – what he thought of the event he had unwittingly transformed with his Fawn Hall maneuver.

The problem, he replied, wasn't so much the dinner as the culture it mirrored. It was, he said, an "accurate reflection of Washington journalism," which he described as "smug and arrogant and self-important."

The WMD fiasco should have been a jolt to that smugness. And scrapping the White House Correspondents' Association dinner would be a small but symbolically significant step forward for Washington journalism.

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