The WHCD or White House Celebrity Dinner

Posted by Michael Getler on

This column, fortunately, has nothing to do with PBS. It is not really even a column; just a brief rant about what is officially called the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and what it says about American journalism these days.

What it says, in my humble opinion, is that events such as this are helping to further erode the already low esteem and low level of confidence in which the nation’s press are held by the public, and further separating the perception of journalism as a public good from the public it is meant to inform.

This gathering, of some 3,000 or so guests is centered around the actual dinner Saturday evening. But it actually also involves 20 or so before-and-after parties over two or three days. Together, it has become an increasingly obscene spectacle; a red-carpet collection of celebrities, including celebrity journalists, fashionistas, one percenters and social ladder climbers that, after the dishes have been cleared away, should leave a lousy taste for much of the public and the thousands of other journalists struggling to do their jobs these days within struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets around the country.

From Concerns About Access to ‘Click-Bait’

Then again, these celebrity events are also “click-bait,” producing glamorous images that many of today’s consumers click on, rather than news stories, and that improves the bottom line at least a little for some publishers.

The Washington Post’s Style section today, for example, devoted four full pages to picturing the WHCD elite meeting to eat and here are samples from Politico, and the Huffington Post.

I’ve written about this before. Back in 2010 I said: “Each year, the dinner, according to press coverage, seems to grow in size and glamour, flooded with beautiful and handsome Hollywood stars and television entertainers as guests of journalists, who have also grown to become stars, and news organizations. It is a testimonial to the celebrity culture that dominates much of Washington and New York journalism. (The New York Times, to its great credit, in my opinion, does not attend.) It is also, in my opinion, an embarrassment, just one more brick on the pile that buries confidence in the U.S. press.” At that time, I also counted 84 stories about the dinner in Politico alone.

My sense is that it gets worse every year and only fortifies declining credibility and a sense of separation.

The White House Correspondents’ Association was formed in 1914 because of real concerns by reporters about efforts to limit access and it had its first dinner in 1924. Accounts of its early years depict these affairs as intimate gatherings of correspondents and about 50 guests. And every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended at least one. Later, there was entertainment, including well-known performers of the time.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

There are also lots of positive things—scholarships awarded by the WHCA, awards to journalists for outstanding coverage, and invariably funny speeches by presidents, as was the case this year, that do, indeed, at least momentarily solidify the sense that the press and the president, though coming at things from a different perspective, can poke blistering fun at each other yet want many of the same good things for our country and its democracy.

President Obama was especially sharp and funny Saturday night and drew lots of laughs and applause at an event sponsored by the WHCA. Yet the president is widely regarded as presiding over one of the most secretive administrations in recent years, most aggressive against leakers and whistle blowers, least responsive to Freedom of Information requests and other actions that most journalists regard as sins. Go figure.

And this article in Britain's Guardian questions how much good the not-for-profit correspondents' organization actually does.

So the "good," at least as I watch it from the sidelines, has been steadily overshadowed for the past 30 years or so by the takeover of a repellent, self-absorbed celebrity culture—including the increasingly elite and celebrity face of journalism. If there was a beginning point, a turn toward this approach, many believe, including me, that it started in 1987 when a Baltimore Sun reporter arrived with Fawn Hall on his arm as his guest. She was the much-photographed and then very much in the news secretary to former White House aide Oliver North during the unfolding of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987.

That created headlines at the time. Since then, it has created more than headlines.

Posted on May 2, 2016 at 3:47 p.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?

An old teaching plan revives an even older controversy.

Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Some thoughts about an old “great war” and a new not-so-great one.

The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Viewers call attention to how interview choices can be interpreted in different ways.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an E-mail notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from E-mail update.