How the journalist prom got out of control
By Dana Milbank,
On Thursday, The Washington Post editorializes that Donald Trump has been campaigning on “bogus” issues and that he should “cease and desist.” An article in the news pages the same day reports that the great orange charlatan’s “simply wild speculation” has “almost no basis in fact.”
Then, on Saturday night, Post reporters and editors, in black-tie finest, go to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner to host their invited guests, including . . . Donald Trump.
Awkward though the Trump invitation is, it is just one of the many problems with the annual dinner and its satellite events.
The fun begins, appropriately enough, at the offices of the American Gas Association, where White House reporters are feted by the lobbyists of the Quinn Gillespie firm. More lobbyist-sponsored entertainment comes from the Motion Picture Association. Along the way, journalists wind up serving as pimps: We recruit Hollywood stars to entertain the politicians, and we recruit powerful political figures to entertain the stars. Corporate bosses bring in advertisers to gawk at the display, and journalists lucky enough to score invitations fancy themselves celebrities.
Cee Lo Green sings for us. Seth Meyers tells us jokes. Lindsay Lohan’s ex, Samantha Ronson, is our DJ. All the cool kids — Sean Penn, Kate Hudson, Steven Tyler, Paula Abdul, Courteney Cox, David Byrne and Bristol Palin — want to party with us. A Johnnie Walker “cigar tent” furnishes us with scotch and hand-rolled stogies. We are handed Fiji water, or Grey Goose vodka, to slake our thirst and Shea Terra Organics Vanilla Body Butters to soothe our pores.
The correspondents’ association dinner was a minor annoyance for years, when it was a “nerd prom” for journalists and a few minor celebrities. But, as with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control. Now, awash in lobbyist and corporate money, it is another display of Washington’s excesses.
There are now no fewer than 20 parties, plus a similar number of receptions, at the Washington Hilton before the dinner. A pre-dinner brunch, once an intimate affair in a TV producer’s backyard, was moved this year to the Georgetown mansion of multimillionaire Mark Ein. Democratic and Republican consultants shell out five figures apiece to join the Cafe Milano owner as hosts. (Cafe Atlantico’s owner, by contrast, is cooking for the Atlantic’s party.)
Time Warner booked the St. Regis for the People and Time fete; Conde Nast has the W Hotel for the New Yorker and the French ambassador’s residence in Kalorama for its Vanity Fair party done with Bloomberg. The MSNBC party is in the Italian Embassy, while others choose the Hay-Adams, the Ritz-Carlton or the Ronald Reagan Building. A few sponsors, generally Hollywood-oriented nonprofits, hold cocktail parties masquerading as charity benefits.
Hungover hobnobbers reconvene Sunday morning at Politico publisher Robert Allbritton’s Georgetown manse to “nosh on hand-rolled sushi and dim sum prepared by Wolfgang Puck’s The Source.” The news release continues: “The Allbrittons’ lush garden, filled with 200-year-old poplar trees, will feature a white century-style tent adorned with blue-and-white ceramics” — not to mention Ashley Judd and Janet Napolitano.
Is it Politico’s job to get Judd and Napolitano together? Is it ABC News’s role to unite “Glee’s” Jane Lynch with White House chief of staff Bill Daley or “30 Rock’s” Elizabeth Banks with national security adviser Tom Donilon? What’s the purpose of Fox News introducing actress Patricia Arquette to Rep. Michele Bachmann, National Journal presenting “The Vampire Diaries’ ” Nina Dobrev to Obama strategist David Axelrod, NPR introducing REM’s Michael Stipe to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, or The Post connecting Trump and House Speaker John Boehner?
I don’t fault any one host for throwing a party or any journalist for attending. Many of them are friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with savoring Johnnie Walker Blue with the politicians we cover.
But the cumulative effect is icky. With the proliferation of A-list parties and the infusion of corporate and lobbyist cash, Washington journalists give Americans the impression we have shed our professional detachment and are aspiring to be like the celebrities and power players we cover.
My late colleague David Broder once recalled how, when he began newspapering in mid-century, journalists embraced the credo that “the only way a reporter should ever look at a politician is down.” He said they “prided themselves on their independence, their skepticism, and they relished their role in exposing the follies and the larceny of public officials.”
As I began to do the RSVPs for a few of this year’s parties, I thought about what our hard-bitten journalistic forebears would make of Cee Lo and SamRo and the Donald. Then I made other plans for the weekend.