Nerd Prom Is a Mess
How to fix Washington’s worst week.
By Patrick Gavin
Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway—now it's not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it's four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It's not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it's us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America).
Something has to change.
I've watched the whole rise of the weekend over the last decade, as it sprawled increasingly out of control and increasingly out of touch—first as a blogger at FishbowlDC and a reporter at the Washington Examiner, then later as a reporter here at politico. Last year I left my job at politico to work on a documentary about White House Correspondents’ Week in Washington, D.C., the year’s most momentous week in arguably the world’s most powerful city. I thought I knew what I'd find, but even I was surprised—much of what I discovered wasn’t pretty. The week acts as a tacky and vainglorious self-celebration at a time when most Americans don’t think Washingtonians have much to be commended for.
Even those who enjoy it tend to concede that the week is a circus. “It’s kind of a mess,” admitted Sirius-XM radio host Julie Mason.
Can it be improved? I’m not optimistic. The momentum is working against any meaningful reform as, each year, the event grows in size and scope; over the last decade, Hollywood's attraction to Washington (and vice versa) has given the party sprawl ever more momentum. There’s little reason to think the trend will be reversed.
But, for the sake of argument, here are the best and most reasonable ways to improve this event.
1.) The president should skip it occasionally.
There are plenty of grand dinners in Washington—The Gridiron Dinner, the Radio-TV Correspondents' Association Dinner and so on. None of those, however, have the same panache as the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner. Why? Simple: The president doesn’t always go to those other dinners. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is different: The last president to skip it was Ronald Reagan in 1981 and—let’s cut him some slack—he bailed because had just been shot. So, if you want to rein in the glitz, glamour and star-appeal of this weekend? Make it so that the night’s biggest draw—the president of the United States’ attendance—isn’t a sure thing.
“Other press dinner are going downhill,” WHCA Executive Director Julia Whiston told me. “They don’t have the attendance that they’d like. They don’t have the president coming. So I think the president really helps by being there. A lot of people are there because of that.”
2.) Raise money at the dinner—or confess that scholarships aren’t really a priority.
When the White House Correspondents’ Association teamed up with the History Channel in 2014 to make a short video about the Association’s history, this is how they described their own dinner: “The first and foremost mission of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is to promote journalism education through the scholarship fund.”
Those are their words.
So why, then, does the Association only dole out around $100,000 in scholarships annually when some of the richest people in the world are at their dinner? (See: Rupert Murdoch, George Lucas, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Steve Case, Sheila Johnson, Ryan Seacrest.)
Let’s not forget that this is a town known for its fundraising prowess. If you think those folks won’t cut some serious checks for the scholarship program as the president of the United States and other notables look on and applaud you, then you don’t know how fundraising works.
3.) Ask related parties to contribute to the scholarship program … and call out those that don’t.
Everywhere you look there are parties glomming onto the WHCA dinner by trying to squeeze under the umbrella of White House correspondents. There’s “The White House Correspondents’ Garden Brunch,” “The New Media Party to celebrate the Centennial White House Correspondents Dinner,” “The Welcome Reception celebrating the White House Correspondents' Dinner” and “Fusion's White House Correspondents' Party.” The list goes on.
But there’s an ugly little secret about all of these hangers on: Whiston says that none of them actually donate to the White House Correspondents’ Association’s scholarship program. Worst still? Whiston and the Association don’t even bother to ask them to.
4.) Hold the president’s feet to the fire.
The dinner has adopted the same kind of comedic tone trademarked at the Gridiron Dinner: “Singe, but not burn.” In other words, jokes at the president’s expense can rough him up a little bit, but don’t take it too far (a la Stephen Colbert in 2006, by some accounts). That sounds reasonable, if occasionally boring (a la Rich Little in 2007, by all accounts).
But, this being the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner and all, there should be one area in which the president should get ribbed as much as is warranted: How he treats the press. Ask any White House correspondent: They’re furious about how difficult their jobs have become (for reference, see Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee’s roundup of the “8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information”).
Well, this is your dinner and the president is your guest: Hold him to account.
5.) Drop the red carpet.
This is ground zero for how this dinner got out of control. Celebrities, paparazzi and even the occasional vain reporter are drawn to the faux-glamour of the red carpet. It is, in part, what prompted Tom Brokaw to remark in 2013 that, “There was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom than there is [at] what I’m seeing on C-SPAN there.”
National Journal White House correspondent George Condon told me that, “If I could wave a wand, I’d eliminate the red carpet. I find the red carpet embarrassing.”
Whiston says the red carpet is a big pain for her as well.
“The hardest part of the dinner is handling the red carpet,” said Whiston. “It gets larger and larger. … There were 112 people covering the red carpet this year. That’s a lot of people.”
6.) Audit the White House Correspondents’ Association.
I don’t think anyone involved with the WHCA intentionally misbehaves, but since they’re now a $500,000-a-year non-profit (not exactly chump change), it’s time for them to act like it. I asked Ken Berger, the CEO of the non-profit watchdog Charity Navigator, to review the Association’s finances for the first time. He came back with a tough rebuke of how the Association does business. His criticisms include the fact that there are no independent audits done, nor is there an audit committee. There are no conflict of interest policies in place. Most disturbing is the fact that almost half of the Association’s annual outlays go to its executive director, a ratio that Berger called disturbing. In many years, the executive director gets paid more than gets doled out in scholarships.
7.) Make celebrities do their homework.
During last year’s festivities, I asked a dozen celebrities one simple question: Who is your favorite White House correspondent? The answers weren’t reassuring.
“I don’t know,” said former N’Sync star JC Chasez. “I’m not so up to speed on that stuff.”
“I don’t know yet,” said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
“I don’t know anybody’s name,” said “Veep” star Anna Chlumsky.
It’s a bit embarrassing when the weekend is supposed to be about White House correspondents.
8.) Expose the influence-peddlers in attendance.
Nowadays, the dinner is as much about business as it is journalism (even more so, perhaps). To that end, let’s make visible the advertisers, lobbyists and business interests in attendance at the dinner. The program distributed at the dinner includes, in theory, the name and seat assignment of every person in attendance, but only a few are identified by profession (“McCain, John, Senator from Arizona” or “Margolies, Eva, Centers for Disease Control” or “McCarthy, Kevin, Associated Press”). Very few individuals from the private sector are given the same treatment.
USA Today White House reporter David Jackson told Sirius-XM in 2014 that, “Less so than, Hollywood, I’m more worried about the corporate takeover—or the attempted takeover—of this dinner. Corporations control an awful lot of the tickets.”
Of course, these are just tweaks that still miss the real target. The primary problem lies less with the event—what’s wrong with a party, right?—than with the prominence and stature everyone in Washington has given this week. We’ve made our annual Superbowl a vainglorious self-celebration in a time when everyone outside the Beltway thinks we’re as ugly as it gets.
Patrick Gavin is the director of "Nerd Prom: Inside Washington's Wildest Week" and a former Politico reporter.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/white-house-correspondents-dinner-117287.html#ixzz3YFLCEwup
When it starts looking like a Hollywood movie like the “Hunger Games”, then surely it is time for a change. Perhaps not a government change, but just the individuals presently in positions of political influence, which includes those preserving their way of life for themselves and their Families. It is as if “they” think “their” the status quo will go on forever. Only time will tell. It might evolve that way. Even the dinosaurs tried to preserve their own way of life, and we all know how that turned out.
And I thought “we the people” were supposed to be in charge, not their political leaders and their appointed minions.