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Barking at the Gate

The White House Correspondents Association dinner is DC’s biggest night—politicos mix with editors mix with celebrities, all very realalcoholik. It’s also among the lowest points of journalism.

Last Saturday night, I went to a movie. No big deal, right? But it’s what I could have been doing instead that made my trip to the cineplex noteworthy; I skipped the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

The dinner is the high point of the Washington social calendar, bringing together D.C. journalists, political bigwigs, and a host of celebrities from all walks of life—this year’s big names included Ben Affleck, the Olsen twins, Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams, and Al Franken. The event, held at the Connecticut Avenue Hilton (known locally as the Hinkley Hilton, as it’s where Reagan was shot), runs from cocktail parties at 6 to the dinner at 8 to the Bloomberg after-party. It’s hard to think of a more intense social evening within the Beltway. Professionally, though, it’s undoubtedly the nadir of political journalism, an annual exercise in willful self-debasement that undermines a field already shaky in the public eye.

To be clear, as a lowly assistant editor at a national political magazine, I was not invited to the dinner itself, only for cocktails beforehand. Each publication buys a certain number of seats at the dinner, enough traditionally for the bulk of their staff. But thanks to the more recent tradition of magazines inviting celebrities as their guests, tickets have become a great way to woo advertisers, who displace many journalists.

It’s the cocktail party beforehand, however, which is the real draw. Otherwise respectable journalists spend two hours running from suite to suite (each sponsored by a publication, with Newsweek’s being the traditional epicenter) looking for the stars, cameras in hand and their self-respect left hanging in the coatroom. (Even at the cocktail, the hierarchy of invitees is evident—those in tuxes and ball gowns are obviously going to the dinner, and are therefore worth talking to. Those in suits and dresses are just there for the free drinks and celebrity stalking, so they can be ignored. Which is why some enterprising eager beavers, though excluded from the dinner, nevertheless show up dressed above their social status.)


For many, come Monday morning, what was dreamed to be an evening of glitz and glamour was really just a chance to debase yourself in front of friends


The WHCA dinner is billed as Washington’s most glamorous night, but if it were in Hollywood or New York it would be just one more celebrity oglefest; in the words of Britain’s Independent, it’s all about ‘who can you identify, what are they wearing, and, most importantly of all, who can you claim to know sufficiently well that you can approach them before the speeches begin?’ Somehow, you’d hope that the people running the country—and more so the folks who report on them—would have a little more self-respect.

It’s true that the evening is first-rate fodder for the next week’s gossip columns and water cooler chats. I went last year, and overheard Matt Drudge tell an Army general that he was ‘sorry about the lawsuit.’ Priceless. But it doesn’t take long for the glow to wear off, and you feel somewhat ashamed to have spent an evening fighting to catch the eye of an ephemeral celebrity whose movies usually suck anyway. Most folks I work with said they’ll never go again (though most say that every year). Ronald Reagan once described the event as Washington’s spring prom, and he was right—for many, come Monday morning, what was dreamed to be an evening of glitz and glamour was really just a chance to debase yourself in front of friends.

And if the cocktails and dinner aren’t enough, there’s the Bloomberg after-party. Only 700 people are invited, and it’s become yet another Washington tradition for non-invitees to attempt to sneak past the listholders at the entrance. The more organized call the organizers weeks in advance trying to get on the list, alternating between bribes and threats if necessary. Others simply show up at the gates and pretend to be someone else. Even well-respected, long-time Washington journalists debase themselves in order to get in. Bill Press, these days a commentator for MSNBC, told the New York Times ‘I have never regretted the humiliation I have had to go through to get in,’ having sneaked in the past three years. That’s just pathetic. Aren’t journalists supposed to the ones who give celebrities the once over and say ‘so what?’ Not on this night.

 

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Fans of the dinner will argue its role in Washington is similar to that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans—a chance for journalists and politicos to drop their social masks and just be regular people for an evening (why Ben Affleck is required isn’t clear). On the other hand, the Eric Altermans of the world will tell you the event is Exhibit A in the case against journalistic objectivity, that it proves journalists are inherently biased toward their subjects and mesmerized by power and when given an excuse to kiss ass will do just that.

Me, I come down somewhere in the middle. I’m pretty sure the WHCA dinner isn’t evidence of a nefarious cabal undermining the public interest to the benefit of a bunch of media, business, and government elites. At the same time, though, the event isn’t just an annual letting down of the guard. I’ve got an informal media-bias theory of my own, namely that Washington journalists tend to be pretty smart folks who, coming out of college, could have taken the more assured paths to wealth and fame the other pretty smart folks in their class followed. They like their chosen career, but they wonder whether they shouldn’t have taken the law school/politics/I-banking route instead. So they end up, usually only semi-consciously, trading their objectivity for access and, more importantly, exposure. In that respect, the WHCA dinner is the big payoff.

Put it another way. There are two types of journalists: The Lincoln Steffenses and the Walter Lippmanns. Steffens was a famous muckraking reporter who continuously pissed off the powers that be; Lippmann was the consummate Washington operator, an immensely talented columnist who saw little problem with getting close to his sources (coincidentally, Lippmann worked for Steffens for a brief stint after college). Both are extremes—Steffens’s journalism benefited from his independence, but it also suffered from his frequently paranoid impression of American wealth and power. Lippmann wouldn’t have been nearly as good a journalist without his intimate access to presidents and powerbrokers, but he often missed the mark because of friendships or animosities that arose from his pass at the door. The key is balance—a sense of respect and comity should exist between the media and its subjects; at the same time, though, there needs to be a healthy amount of skepticism and independence as well. Usually, there’s at least the impression that such a division exists. But then you see David Brooks and John Kerry yucking it up by the bar, or Barbara Walters making a beeline across a crowded room to shake Donald Rumsfeld’s hand, or to watch a line of New York Times staffers form behind Vincent D’Onofrio, you realize the myth of journalistic integrity is just that.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen