AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June 1999

This Dinner is Not a Winner   

Isn't it time to put the White House Correspondents' Association dinner out of our misery?

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

Scoop was a PR guy. But, more significantly, he was a hanger-on of Don McDonough, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who was also the "affable prexy" of both the Philadelphia Press Association and the City Hall reporters.
Each year, the latter would throw a Christmas party in the City Hall pressroom. And each year Scoop would invite the city's judges and pols and assistant DAs to the event.
And he would remind them to contribute liquor.
They did--in staggering quantities. Enough to quell the thirst of the numerous merrymakers who would show up for the bash each year. And enough that there would be so much left over that each of the City Hall reporters would take home 10 or 11 bottles.
This, of course, was 100 years ago, or at least in the 1960s, a harsh, primitive time before cable, e-mail and Fatboy Slim.
But it helps put the White House Correspondents' Association "dinner" in perspective. (If you wonder about the quotes around dinner, you clearly haven't eaten there lately.) With boondoggles like the Philly yulefest in journalism's past, the D.C. giltz-a-rama hardly seems cause for firing up the war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
But it's bad enough.
And maybe it's time to turn out the lights. In the immortal words of Semisonic, it's closing time. This is one party that should be over.
What was once a relatively harmless if stiff affair where Washington journalists socialized with their sources has become a vivid symbol of what is so wrong with elite journalism. It's exhibit A of the shotgun marriage of journalism and entertainment. It's the embodiment of the triumph of buzz over content. It's the ascendancy of bad taste, or the death of taste altogether, incarnate.
It's low-rent Oscar night, if that isn't redundant.
Do we need this?
The desperate scramble for celeb-rity guests is eloquent testimony to what is so wrong about this black tie from hell.
As has been written in every story on the subject, the downward trajectory began in 1987 when Michael Kelly, then with the Baltimore Sun, invited the paper-shredding, Ollie North-adoring Fawn Hall to the thing.
Kelly didn't know he was making social history. He was simply responding to his bureau chief's entreaty to bring someone who would get the paper some attention. And he succeeded, big time.
The scramble for the get was on.
Guests in the recent past have included Paula Jones and Donna Rice, not to mention the fun couple Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche. They have what? to do with Washington journalism or national politics?
But this year was nadir city. JFK Jr., the noted magazine publisher/hunk, invited Larry Flynt, the pornographer who joined the ranks of the great muckrakers by offering bounties on naughty Republicans.
Flynt makes his fellow 1999 guest, bad-boy actor Sean Penn, look like Clark Clifford. Of course, the event has its pleasures. Schmoozing is one of America's great sports, and the schmoozing at the numerous pre- and post-dinner receptions was fine.
And there were great moments of serendipity, like encountering Peter Jennings tending bar. Another chance en-counter, this one with Georghe Muresan, Romania's gift to professional basketball, brought home just how tall 7-foot-7 really is.
The best, though, was watching the head table while Aretha Franklin reprised her aged soul anthems. As part of a White House Correspondents' Association reform movement, the traditional comedian was jettisoned in favor of the Queen of Soul. The important people on the dais struggled manfully and womanfully to "get down" as Aretha belted, but for the most part it wasn't happening.
Dick Schmidt, media lawyer to the stars and, we're betting, not a big rock 'n' roll guy, had the best idea. He didn't even try to fake it.
So, you might ask, what's the big deal? It's just a social event, a party, a chance for journalists and sources to rock out.
That question is an-swered articulately by Michael Oreskes, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief, in a letter explaining why the Times was bowing out of this year's event. "The purpose of honoring good journalism with awards and raising money for scholarships has become lost in the circus," Oreskes wrote. "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."
Inevitably, the Times' high-minded stance was mocked by the dinner's moderator, MSNBC's usually excellent Brian Williams. This only underscored the coziness and self-satisfaction of which the dinner reeks.
As for Kelly, he has transcended his Fawn Hall past. He edits National Journal and writes a column in which he dissects today's Washington. The problem, he says, isn't the dinner, but the culture it mirrors. He sees it as an "accurate reflection of Washington journalism," which he finds to be "smug and arrogant and self-important."
Obviously, abolishing the White House Correspondents' Association dinner isn't going to fix all that. But it's like the old joke: What do you call 20 dead lawyers?
A good start.