We call it the “nerd prom,” hoping that a dose of irony will inoculate us. But there’s no use denying it: The White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner is a deeply narcissistic event.
I realize I’m jumping on the bandwagon late here — and any bandwagon that carries both Tom Brokaw and Sarah Palin is by definition crowded. This year it got so full that the current officers of the association started to sound like Miss America wishing for world peace: All they wanted to do, they said, was raise money for scholarships for aspiring journalists.
An inordinate amount of time was spent congratulating themselves for having raised more than $100,000 for journalism students. The return on investment is laughable. The weekend costs media organizations millions of dollars.
The emphasis on charity came after Brokaw elevated the criticism of the dinner by saying last year on “Meet the Press” that the evening reached a breaking point for him when Lindsay Lohan, invited by Fox News, became the night’s center of attention. Not unexpectedly, Sarah Palin chimed in this year on Twitter that we were a bunch of clowns throwing ourselves a “pathetic” party.
This emphasis on charity was always misplaced. I much preferred the original rationale for the dinner, which was for members of the press and government officials to share a meal in formal clothes and pinching footwear — the better for them to feel each other’s pain.
Suspect to begin with, that purpose has long been subsumed by competition for celebrity guests who travel a red carpet, with groupies cheering them on and journalists from E! and “Entertainment Tonight” breathlessly interviewing them. Celebrities no longer have to have some thin connection to Washington. What connection could members of the cast of “Downton Abbey” possibly have?
If we wonder why the evening induces rage in some quarters, look at the posse of Korean bodyguards surrounding Psy, whose dream is to be profiled on “60 Minutes” but who nonetheless fled behind a curtain to avoid one more journalist asking for his photograph. (For his children, of course. The pictures are always for the kids.) At least he didn’t smash a phone, as Sean Penn once did.
You don’t need a billion views on YouTube, or talent, to be invited to an all-expenses-paid weekend. I will stand for hours in three-inch heels to talk to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey for a few minutes. Is that how recording artist and fragrance-endorser Katy Perry (not to pick on her; she sat at Bloomberg’s table) wants to spend a Saturday night? If she’s like most celebrities, she’s willing so long as it comes with airfare, a four-star hotel, lavish pre- and post-parties and swag bags that mimic the Oscars.
Any celebrity will do. The dinner descended from self- parody to self-loathing this year in its search for attention, inviting the cast of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” a show for those who like hunting fowl and hating Washington. By being the most ridiculous guests, they won the award for being most mentioned.
For evidence of how seriously we take the celebrity content, look at Politico’s tip sheet for its reporters, published by Gawker. It gives guidance to reporters on the care, feeding and questioning of Hollywood stars. Apparently the premise is that Washington reporters know full well how to suck up to the CIA director, but not necessarily how to pander to the guy who plays him on TV. All the questions were along the lines of: “You play a [description of character] on [name of program/movie]. How does that affect the way you see stories such as the [current news event]?”
The heart of the evening is a monologue by a hired comedian. (This year it was Conan O’Brien.) The president goes first, however, reading jokes written for him by speechwriters who could be doing other things. President Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has mastered the self-deprecating joke. Even when the lines — from the president or the professional — aren’t funny, we all chuckle indiscriminately, because none of us wants to fail the exam or lose the student- council election. We fail to notice we have become what we used to criticize.
The criticism that the dinner constitutes an exchange of favors between the political, celebrity and journalistic classes misses the point. The politicians see the dinner mostly as an obligation. The celebrities see it mostly as a disappointment. A few years ago comedian Larry David attended. When he was asked to come again he said no, adding that you have to be a dinner virgin to attend in the first place. George Clooney said he was surprised when his car pulled up to a hotel: He thought the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was at the White House, not in a basement ballroom with 2,500 other people. I don’t think he was joking.
The better criticism of the dinner is financial, not political: While hundreds of our colleagues have lost their jobs and news budgets have been slashed, we are spending a king’s ransom to create the illusion that we are important.
For many years, I wanted so badly to be invited to the dinner that, long after I got on all the right lists, I was blind to how earnest and self-congratulatory it was. So depending on how you look at it, my history either undermines my credibility or bolsters my authority. (I prefer to take the latter view.)
Either way, my conclusion is the same: More than anything else, what this weekend shows is that we in the news media have forgotten our mission to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Please, next year, could we take all the money we spend on parties and give it to causes worthier than our own?
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.