Can “This Town” change?
For years, critics have panned the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which on Saturday will unfold with the usual fizz created by combining and vigorously mixing movie stars and journalists and lawmakers and lobbyists and assorted hangers-on. The dinner and surrounding parties are an unseemly display of coziness between journalists and the folks they ostensibly cover, and too celebrity-focused to boot, say a roster of WHCD haters, including Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters, and Mark Leibovich, whose scathing send-up of Washington, “This Town,” was partially set at the annual extravaganza.
Some say this year’s festivities may finally reflect a collective chastening brought on by years of backlash. “I think this year the celebrity focus will dim slightly,” Bob Garfield, the host of NPR’s “On the Media,” says. “It’s embarrassing to continually be embarrassed.”
Steve Thomma, president of the WHCDA, is all too aware of the dinner’s reputation as a gathering dominated by glittery out-of-towners, and says he’s making extra efforts this year to train the spotlight back on, uh, the correspondents. You know, the ones the dinner is named after?
For example, instead of last year’s spoof video, starring actor Kevin Spacey in his “House of Cards” character, with cameos by VIPs from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to Charlie Rose to White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, the association will screen a dignified documentary video produced by the History Channel reflecting on the dinner’s 100-year history.
“The video is about us — the White House press corps– and about the presidency,” says Thomma, who pledged as the head of the association to represent the correspondents who sit “behind the first two rows” in the White House briefing room, meaning not just the big names and the faces you see on the nightly news. “I chose a different path.”
While the official program might highlight the less-glamorous work of covering the president, stars will certainly be in the audience (see our running list here). And even Leibovich doubts that 2014 will be the year the dinner turns around. “I’d like to think that there’s some self awareness and self-reflection around this, but those aren’t qualities this city is known for,” he says. Washington, he adds, might literally be addicted to the dinner’s glitz. “It’s hard to stop once habits get formed,” he adds.
But perhaps change comes in degrees. At least so far, this year’s guest list is low on the kind of famous-for-being-famous types that served as the poster celebrities for a ritual run amok. “The year that Lindsay Lohan was sitting next to a Kardashian spawn — I think at the FOX table — pretty much represented not just the nadir of the White House Correspondents’ dinner, but the nadir of American culture,” Garfield says.
Greta Van Susteren, the FOX News host who is responsible for bringing the likes of Kardashian and Lohan to the dinner, says critics are simply overthinking it. “It’s just socializing,” she says. “You can go and have fun or stay home and critique it, it doesn’t make a difference.”
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