BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) Dinner, a dazzling display of media narcissism, is over. But before it slips into memory, as I suggested last year, too, the Association ought to think seriously about not doing it next year. The spectacle is an embarrassment to journalism and the American Presidency.
It reinforces an awful perception of Washington culture. And, staging this circus under the guise of raising funds for journalism scholarships is just short of fraud. The paltry amount of money the Association gives out in scholarships could be raised with a tin cup at the corner of Connecticut and K streets in DC. The budding reporters are a thin cover for a week of extravagant, self-indulgent Oscar parties.
The newspaper Politico said last year the Association has awarded only $583,000 in scholarships in the last 20 years. That averages out to $29,150 a year. Last year, the Association raised $130,000, according to WHCA President Ed Henry of Fox News. I believe he said this year’s awards were just over $150,000. He also said the dinner drew more than 3,000 participants at what we’re told is $1,000 per plate. Henry bragged from the podium that it was sold out, so at $1,000 a plate, they took in $3 million, of which just 5 percent went to scholarships.
The Washington Post reported that some of the major media corporations may have spent as much as $200,000 each hosting and toasting celebrities and government officials, attending parties, hiring limousines and entertaining their guests. In other words, one media corporation could just as easily contribute more to the scholarship fund than the entire dinner raised from its 3,000 guests, who were pampered by 675 Hilton Hotel waiters and workers as they dined on petite filets, jumbo shrimp and chocolate truffle mousse, food sampled and approved by members of the Association’s board of directors in a private, menu preview.
If I have the numbers wrong, don’t blame me. I scoured the Internet for news reports of the details. The press, however, doesn’t cover itself like it does other non-profit organizations that they badger to death for accounting of every nickel and dime raised and spent.
The dinner, as the Post pointed out, wasn’t the main event, but only one of many parties staged at great expense over a 4-day marathon of merriment. It’s Oscar week in Washington, all over again.
It all reminds you of the pagan worship scene in the Cecil B. DeMille 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments, that took place while Moses was sweltering in front of the burning bush atop Mount Sinai.
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a critic of the dinner, said about last year’s affair, “there was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom…Lindsay Lohan? Give me a break.”
Using young journalism students as a prop for lavishing partying is not the worst offense of the WHCA and its media members. Ed Henry can be forgiven for his incredulous insistence at the dinner that the young scholarship winners were the event’s central focus. (They, in fact, were scurried across the stage to pick up their honors and a hug from Michele Obama, recognition that amounted to all of 7-10 minutes of the 3-hour long exercise in self-love).
But he and his colleagues cannot be forgiven for the hypocrisy of it all. There in the Hilton Hotel the other night, there at the Tammy Haddad luncheon and the Vanity Fair and MSNBC parties, were rooms full of reporters, editors and infotainers, who regularly rant and rave in torrents of righteous indignation about the evil relationships between special interests and public officials that are nurtured in privileged environments from country clubs to cocktail parties.
But there, sipping champagne and chatting about world affairs shoulder to shoulder with the reporters, editors, producers, directors, infotainers and media executives were lobbyists, politicians, big Hollywood political contributors, major corporate executives, and Wall Street tycoons in exactly the same environment the media condemn, doing exactly the same thing the media condemn–engaging in influence peddling and privileged access to one another.
Ed can make excuses for it, but he can’t explain it. There is no justification for it. In this day and age of media advocacy and bias, there is no longer much distinction between lobbyists and journalists when weighing the influence they wield over public policy, except one: Journalists today are far more influential and free to exercise influence than lobbyists.
It has all melded together. It’s all the same. It is people of privilege and access creating, building and fortifying relationships in a rarified atmosphere for the benefit of themselves and their corporate and political interests.
It is interesting and ironic that this charity dinner is one of the few that have survived in Washington. Many others, like the Vince Lombardi Cancer Center dinner, folded their tents, along with similar charitable golf and tennis tournaments that raised millions for good causes over the decades in Washington. They were, in part, victims of the media, portrayed as an unseemly, too cozy way for politicians and lobbyists to mingle and engage in the art of influence under the cover of charitable giving.
Eventually rules were adopted and laws were passed that discouraged organizations from sponsoring them and discouraged politicians and lobbyists from attending. The WHCA dinner, which as was noted, raises relatively little in charitable giving, has survived and flourished, barely touched by criticism and unfettered by oversight. I wonder why.
The entire weekend over-indulgence is a reflecting pool of what’s wrong with Washington and why changing the political paradigm to address the public’s hardening disgust with politics, government and, yes, the media, will be so difficult.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.