Journalists often describe the Obama administration as one of the least press-friendly of modern times, with a record of stonewalling, investigating and generally snubbing the news media.
Yet on Saturday night, some of the news media’s most prominent members will party with the very president whose administration has stonewalled, investigated and generally snubbed them.
Anyone sensing a contradiction here?
The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has always offered “optics” that would shock a journalistic puritan. To wit: a ballroom full of Washington media types, advertisers and a few celebrities schmoozing with the same government officials, including the president, that the media types are supposed to be holding to account.
Most news organizations dismiss the perception question and party on. This year’s event will again be eagerly attended. All 260 tables in the Washington Hilton ballroom, 2,600 seats in all, have been sold to media companies at $3,000 per table (for the record, The Washington Post will occupy seven of them). The WHCA said it turned away 1,200 requests for tickets this year. The dinner is also the center of a constellation of related parties sponsored by media companies.
But the ethical overtones of the proceedings still deter a few. The New York Times has banned its reporters from attending the dinner since 2007. Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s executive editor, said in an interview this week that he imposed the ban when he was Washington bureau chief because he thought the dinner made “the press and politicians [look] too cozy for my taste.”
Media elder statesman Tom Brokaw expressed similar reservations in 2012 after watching the fuss kicked up around dinner attendee Lindsay Lohan. “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said on “Meet the Press.” “It is time to rethink it.”
While this remains, by far, the minority sentiment, many journalists would probably agree with a more general critique of the man they will be toasting Saturday night: His administration has often been uncooperative, if not downright hostile, to the people who cover him.
Some journalists have been shockingly blunt in their assessments. In a TV interview last year, Jill Abramson, then editor of the Times, called the administration “the most secretive” she had encountered during her long career.
David Sanger, the Times’ veteran White House correspondent, described the Obama White House as “the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered,” in a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2013.
In fact, Obama’s Justice Department has initiated seven investigations of classified leaks to news organizations, more than twice as many as any previous administration. And it has employed unusually aggressive tactics in doing so, such as using secret subpoenas to seize phone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press and naming Fox News reporter James Rosen as “an aider, abettor and/or conspirator” of a suspected government leaker. To press advocates, this is tantamount to criminalizing the act of reporting.
In another major leak case, New York Times reporter James Risen fought a prolonged legal battle against the Justice Department to protect the identity of a confidential government source. Risen faced a potential jail sentence before prevailing in January.
On a more basic level, journalism groups — including the White House Correspondents’ Association — protested the White House’s restrictions on news photographers’ access to presidential appearances (the groups’ 2013 formal complaint resulted in somewhat greater access, according to the WHCA). Some 38 journalism organizations also protested “the politically driven suppression of news” by federal agencies in a letter to Obama last summer, calling the policies of public-affairs offices “a form of censorship.”
In the Committee to Protect Journalists report, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. summarized the administration’s efforts to control information as “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.” Downie was one of the editors involved in The Post’s coverage of Nixon’s Watergate crimes.
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Given all of the above, it’s fair to ask: Exactly what are White House correspondents celebrating at the correspondents’ dinner?
Christi Parsons, president of the WHCA, said in an interview that her organization and the dinner are about “promoting openness and transparency” at the White House.
“The dinner is a time to publicly recommit ourselves to our common purpose,” she said. “We work seven days a week, around the clock, pushing for greater press freedom at the White House.”
Parsons, who will sit next to Obama at the dinner Saturday night, added: “We win some and we lose some, but the organization exists to keep banging on that door.”
But how does a glitzy dinner further the door-banging mission? Parsons replied: “It’s a time for us to talk about what we do and what our purpose is. It’s a time when people pay attention” to the cause of press freedom. “It helps us cement who we are.”
The dinner raises thousands of dollars for the WHCA and funds its continued advocacy and scholarship and awards program, she pointed out.
Parsons, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, isn’t as confident as her peers in labeling Obama the most media-hostile president (“I feel we need more empirical evidence,” she said). But she acknowledged it may seem that way because the government has more tools than ever — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — to bypass the news media and get its own messages out.
“I don’t actually object to them doing that,” she said, “but it’s not a substitute for a free, independent and vigorous press corps.”
Parsons might get an argument about the dinner’s value from the band of naysayers who won’t be at the Washington Hilton on Saturday.
The event remains “unholy” no matter who is in office or what the administration’s alleged sins may be, said Frank Rich, the New York magazine columnist and former New York Times writer.
“Whether Bush 41 or Clinton, Bush 43 or Obama, the televised spectacle confirms the worst suspicions of the dwindling audience for ‘legacy journalism’: The press is in the tank with the Beltway establishment,” he said via e-mail. “And these suspicions are equally held by the left and right, by the way, a rare area of bipartisan agreement. You’d think at a time when print and television news organizations are fighting for their lives, the last thing they need is to be seen partying on the deck of the Titanic.”