White House correspondents' dinner is about celebrities, not journalists

The Washington PostMay 2, 2014 

— And so it begins: The annual bacchanal known as the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

What started as a small gathering for White House reporters, an all-white, all-male enclave of power and privilege for decades, has evolved into a four-day explosion of pre-parties, after-parties, tweets, photo-ops and corporate branding.

The dinner was barely known outside of Washington until 1987, when a young Baltimore Sun reporter brought Fawn Hall, the secretary at the center of the Iran-contra scandal, as his date - a stunt that made headlines, opened a Pandora's box of celebrity guests and self-promotion and made the party the hottest ticket in town. This year, Saturday's 2,630 tickets sold out "in a manner of seconds," says WHCA president Steven Thomma.

Like all spectacles, there's endless debate about what this all means. Unlike the Oscars, which reflect what goes on in Hollywood the other 364 days a year, the WHCA dinner has little to do with the actual business of covering the White House. Some call it a lighthearted evening for the administration and the press, and some dismiss it as a self-congratulatory circus of inside-the-Beltway elites.

The reality is that for many years, the weekend has had little to do with Washington. It's a Washington-themed party with politicians and media playing supporting roles to celebrities on yet another red carpet.

One thing it's not: A little press dinner.

The first WHCA dinner was held in 1921; the event stayed, for the most part, under the radar for 66 years. Then 30-year-old Michael Kelly decided to shake things up. For decades, Washington reporters invited sources - a member of the administration or other government officials - in an effort to foster goodwill and better working relationships. Kelly, a new Baltimore Sun writer, asked Hall to the 1987 dinner.

The blonde beauty, former secretary to Oliver North, created a sensation when she walked into the Washington Hilton ballroom. "My favorite thing of the evening was watching a crowd of allegedly hard-bitten newsmen line up to get Fawn Hall's autograph," Kelly told the Los Angeles Times that night. He one-upped himself the following year with Donna Rice, the model who torpedoed Gary Hart's presidential bid.

Thomma, now the senior White House correspondent and political editor for McClatchy Newspapers, remembers watching as his colleagues streamed past Robert Bork - the nominee recently rejected for the Supreme Court in a historic political battle - and swarmed Rice. "Isn't that interesting," said Bork dryly.

Kelly, who died in 2003 while embedded in Iraq, was unapologetic about hijacking the spotlight; it wasn't until years later that he told friend Robert Vare he regretted his role in the celebrification of the event. But the dinner quickly turned from night to cultivate sources into a race for the hottest guests.

In 1990, it was Marla Maples, Donald Trump's then-mistress and tabloid obsession. Time reporter Jack McDonald convinced her that dinner with the president and 2,500 or so Washington types would be a classy way to emerge from hiding. It was, in its own way, shocking to watch: Respected White House media figures shoving each other to get a picture taken with the woman whose only claim to fame was sleeping with The Donald.

Seven years later, Ellen DeGeneres - who had come out on the cover of Time magazine just two weeks earlier - and new girlfriend Anne Heche made a national political statement with lots of PDA and a presidential photo-op. In 1998, the conservative magazine Insight invited Paula Jones - the first celebrity guest asked with the intention of embarrassing President Bill Clinton - operating under the theory that any publicity is good publicity.

With Maples, any pretense that this dinner was about the Washington press left the building. Now it was just about celebrities: the bigger, the better. In 2002, Ozzy Osbourne, rocker-turned-reality-star, got a shout-out from President Bush and a 30-second ovation from the crowd when he jumped on a chair to soak in the applause.

By this point, the White House adopted the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy. In 2000, press secretary Joe Lockhart starred in a parody video alongside the cast of "The West Wing." Fast-forward to 2013: Not a soul was surprised by last year's curtain raiser, a "House of Cards" spoof with Kevin Spacey, Valerie Jarrett, Jay Carney, John McCain, Kevin McCarthy, Steny Hoyer, Charlie Rose and Major Garrett.

And President Barack Obama starred in another video that night created by Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg, fresh off the Oscar-winning "Lincoln."

"If you're a celebrity with something to promote, you have to be there," says media consultant Tammy Haddad. She started hosting a pre-dinner backyard brunch for 30 friends in 1993; this year, Haddad will welcome about 300 handpicked guests. The event got huge, she says, because her celebrity friends started coming to the dinner for fun, then to promote pet causes and pretty soon networks realized it was an ideal showcase for their stars and shows.

The brunch (mimosas and chicken salad under the tent, designer heels sinking into the grass) began as a welcome party for out-of-town guests - years before the party sprawl expanded to four days of corporate-sponsored parties. A low-key way to kick off the weekend, it soon became a must-attend stop on the A-list agenda. Tech types got interested in the hoopla about three years ago, and now Hollywood writers have started showing up. "I think people are coming here for material," says Haddad, a consultant for "Veep."

One result? For the past decade, dinner tickets that once went to reporters have gone to celebrities or advertisers. While he can't dictate how media organizations use their seats, Thomma said he's pressured them to include all their White House journalists and asked party hosts to put more correspondents on their guest lists.

Fox News's Greta Van Susteren invited Lindsay Lohan in 2012 with the stated intention of helping the unemployable actress rebuild her damaged brand - which prompted NBC's Tom Brokaw to boycott last year's dinner. "The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan," he told Politico last year. "She became a big star at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Give me a break." A star? More like a carnival sideshow: Guests mobbed her dinner table, pointing and critiquing just feet away, as if the clearly rattled actress were an exotic zoo oddity.

Had Brokaw objected that celebrities had overrun a dinner intended to highlight White House reporters, his absence might have carried more gravitas. But his complaint wasn't that stars flocked to the dinner, but that Lohan was the wrong kind of celebrity.

So how did we get here?

A handful of reporters founded the White House Correspondents' Association in 1914 after Woodrow Wilson, cranky about the publication of remarks he had considered off-the-record, threatened to stop the free-for-all news conferences.

Their first dinner was held May 7, 1921: About 50 reporters and administration aides gathered at Washington's Arlington Hotel. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to attend, in 1924, and the dinner grew in size and reputation as a high-class boys' night out: singing, eating, drinking, then back to the trenches the next day. It was an all-white affair until the 1950s, and all-male until 1962, when UPI's Helen Thomas and other female reporters were finally allowed to attend.

The format remains essentially the same to this day: A few awards, a funny speech from the president and light entertainment. As early as the 1940s, big stars (such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra) performed, but there was little publicity and there are no recordings or photos in the archives, says Thomma.

In 1993, C-SPAN started broadcasting portions of the night, which made it nationally famous and a fat target for critics. The assumption, based on the black-tie bonhomie in the Washington Hilton ballroom, is that the president and an elite press enjoy a cozy relationship – too cozy.

The late Christopher Hitchens was a vociferous critic of the dinner and what he dismissed as press lapdogs instead of watchdogs; The New York Times has boycotted the dinner for years, and its Washington bureau chief said in 2011 that it "sends the wrong signal to our readers." But that didn't stop them from partaking in the festivities: Hitchens was the original host of Vanity Fair's A-list correspondents' after-party at his apartment; the Times’ top political writers, led by veteran columnist Maureen Dowd, are always guests at the weekend's A-list events.

The dinner's other main criticism is that the Washington press corps is obsessed with celebrity. "What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country?" Brokaw asked Politico. "Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?"

One could argue that the entire evening is an exercise in self-promotion: the celebrities, of course, but also the media corporations, which heavily promote their guests; the president, who uses it to burnish his image and swat down detractors; the comedians (this year "Community" actor Joel McHale) who use it to expand their fan base; the WHCA, which tries to spotlight its journalists and its scholarship programs.

"In the 21st century, with consumers and the press all running to the newest shiny thing, events like this one all want to grow up and be the Oscars or the Super Bowl," says Robert Passikoff, president of consumer research firm Brand Keys. The question facing the WHCA is what the dinner stands for now and what its members want it to be. "If you are selling something, you need to understand what that is and whether it's the right thing to sell," says Passikoff. "Consumers, though, definitely care more about celebrities than correspondents."

Thomma says he's heard it all and, for the most part, is pretty comfortable with the dinner as it is: White House beat reporters spend the rest of the year fighting for increasingly restricted access to the president, administration officials and information. A civil working relationship - or a party - doesn't stop them from doing their job.

"Let's remember: it's just a dinner," he says. "It's not a college seminar on journalism. It's not a press conference. It's meant to be a pleasant evening."

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