There is news today that some news organizations are cutting back their participation in the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. The New Yorker doesn't want to sponsor the pre-party and Vanity Fair "is pulling out of co-sponsoring the dinner’s most exclusive after-party, a celebrity-studded affair most recently hosted at the French ambassador’s residence that is considered the capital’s hottest ticket of the year," as The New York Times put it.
I would like to propose that the dinner be canceled entirely because it is symptomatic and symbolic of much of what is wrong with the Washington press corps.
Doubts have arisen about this year's dinner because it involves socializing with a president who is on a mission to destroy whatever remaining credibility the news media have. But it shouldn't matter who is president: As a matter of course, journalists should not yield to the dubious mores of Washington's political culture. That's what they do through the correspondents' dinner, as the Washington Post noted last year:
“How do I get a ticket to the White House Correspondents’ dinner?”
That query, now on the lips of bucket-list checkers inside the Beltway and out, sounds straightforward, and the simple answer is this: be a White House correspondent, or the boss of such a person. Be a desired guest of the media outlets with access to golden tickets: a senator, maybe, or a Cabinet secretary, a top advertiser — or a celebrity. And even then, cross your fingers just for good measure.
But that explanation belies a fraught process by which the annual dinner’s 2,600 tickets are distributed — all influenced by a stew of power plays, ego, and money. Think politics is just for politicians? Welcome to the creation of the seating chart for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Publicists push correspondents to get tickets for celebrity clients. Publishers get seats for advertisers. TV networks showcase entertainers. An earnest effort to celebrate the First Amendment and raise money for charity? It's more like an attempt to act like the power brokers the Washington media are supposed to cover. At least it looks that way and, as any journalism textbook would say, it's important to avoid not only conflicts of interest but the appearance of a conflict of interest.
There's been much soul-searching in the news media since President Trump's election: how did we get it so wrong? Why were we out of touch with the public?
It would be a great gesture toward reform -- perhaps symbolic in the Pope Francis mode -- if the correspondents' dinner were simply ended, or maybe turned into a more modest affair without the lobbyists, politicians, celebrities and headliners. Money spent now on cocktail parties and other luxuries could be directed to the White House Correspondents' Association scholarship fund. A gesture like that might restore a bit of the credibility that's been lost.