I once enjoyed quite a perk as the son of a successful Washington newspaper correspondent. On several occasions, I attended the most exclusive and silliest event in Washington journalism: the spring dinner of the 127-year-old Gridiron Club.
I only got in via nepotism. My late father, Jim McCartney, was a longtime Gridiron member. He gave me one of his treasured tickets — four per active member. This annoyed his bosses at the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, who instead wanted to use the ticket to reward one of their executives.
As a result, I was in a hotel ballroom with about 620 chosen others to hear presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton tell jokes, and, in Clinton’s case, play the saxophone. I saw top Washington journalists perform cleverly written but clumsily acted satirical musical skits mocking high-ranking officials and politicians in the audience.
Given this experience, and remembering Dad’s views, I feel justified in kibitzing. In advance of this year’s dinner on Saturday, I sound the following alarm:
Wake up, Gridiron. You’re losing your cachet. All the archaic stuff on which you’ve prided yourselves for so many years — the white-tie dress code, the privacy — is just looking, well, archaic.
The Gridiron’s dinner already risks becoming less of a draw than that of the club’s rival, the White House Correspondents’ Association. It’s the upstart that has learned to use Hollywood celebrities and a live television broadcast to attract attention.
Washington officials “have increasingly thought it [the Gridiron] was an event they could skip,” said Cheryl Arvidson, who was the Gridiron’s official historian until three years ago.
The group’s prestige isn’t the only thing at stake. Its journalistic integrity is on the line. Like other galas where media and officialdom mingle, the dinner has drawn just criticism for seeming to nurture excessive coziness between journalists and the people we’re supposed to hold accountable.
Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute, faulted the Gridiron on those grounds, as well as its restricted membership and predominance of older reporters from traditional media.
“It’s a bunch of old-school journalists trying to keep ahold of their insider status. That bugs me to no end,” McBride said. “When you combine exclusivity with socializing with your sources, it creates at the very least a perception that your loyalty is to the source.”
Exhibit A of the Gridiron’s decline is its spotty record lately attracting the guest it wants most — the president. On Saturday, President Obama won’t be there for the third time in four years.
Gridiron members are thanking providence they have a good excuse. Obama will be out of the country for a nuclear security summit in South Korea.
But Obama skipped the dinner in 2009 and 2010 because it conflicted with his children’s spring break from school. I applaud his priorities as a father, but he clearly views the Gridiron as expendable.
George W. Bush attended six out of eight Gridirons during his presidency. And neither Obama nor Bush missed a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
What to fix? The first call is to drop the requirement that the men wear white tie and tails. That’s a stricter requirement than for White House state dinners. It used to be quaint. Now it’s just annoying and expensive. Obama made fun of it when he appeared last year.
But the most important thing to change is to put the whole show on television. That would inoculate the Gridiron against the ailment that threatens it most: lack of transparency.
To its credit, it’s been years since the Gridiron tried to pretend the whole dinner was off the record. But in today’s media world, the public is suspicious of anything deliberately kept off the Web.
Moreover, the funny lyrics and goofy costumes would instantly make the Gridiron must-see Internet video. That hasn’t happened partly because the journalist performers are willing to look foolish in front of the president but not the world.
“The fact that we’re wiling to get onstage and look stupid, there might be more reluctance to do that if you knew it was going to be on YouTube,” said USA Today’s Susan Page, who was club president last year.
Media expert McBride said that was backward. She said seeing a Washington bureau chief prance around in an animal costume helps create an amiable personal brand that’s invaluable nowadays.
“I actually think the online audience, and maybe the television audience, would be pretty forgiving,” McBride said. “The thing I love about the Gridiron is the self-deprecating humor.”
That’s the right approach. Don’t keep the fun for yourselves, Gridiron. Share it with everybody, and you’ll benefit in the long run.