Correction: An earlier version of this story may have created the impression that the White House Correspondents Association was officially responsible for throwing a party earlier in the week, on a lobbyist's balcony, to celebrate its planning of the annual dinner. While a number of association members attended the pre-party, as well as a member of the WHCA board, it was a private function not organized by the WHCA.
Once all the details of Saturday’s sprawling White House Correspondents’ Association dinner were locked down this week, the people behind the party did what came naturally: They threw themselves another, more exclusive party.
A group of Washington journalists gathered Wednesday evening on the balcony of a lobbyist’s swanky condominium overlooking the city’s skyline to sip champagne from flutes garnished with blueberries to celebrate the upcoming gala.
Staging a large hotel ballroom event might sound like prosaic business, but it’s no easy task, especially when the one in question attracts some of the most powerful people in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to the public, virtually every detail of the glitzy soiree at the Washington Hilton is determined by the White House Correspondents’ Association board and officers, all nine of whom cover the president by day. They choose the comic who tells the jokes after the president speaks, and they decide whether Wolf Blitzer or Bill O’Reilly sits closest to the dais or in the seating-chart version of Siberia. They’re the ones, too, who decided to install a red carpet at the Washington Hilton some years ago so celebrities could swan and strut for the dozens of paparazzi and live TV cameras.
Given that the demand for tickets outstrips the supply every year, the association’s board and president have turned into powerful gatekeepers over a room filled with outsize egos and deep pockets.
The nonprofit WHCA is made up of journalists who cover the White House, some 261 “regular” and 114 “associate” members. Its leadership comprises such organizations as the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, CBS News and Yahoo News. Its stated mission is to negotiate with the White House press secretary over such things as presidential press pools and photo opportunities. But the annual dinner, which began as a clubby get-together for a few dozen journalists in 1921, has long been its best-known endeavor, and nearly the entire source of its annual revenue of around $600,000.
Unlike at many fundraising dinners, the most complicated task facing the association isn’t filling the seats but fending off people clamoring for some of the 2,600 available tickets, which cost $300 per person.
As a rule, only member news organizations can buy tickets, although not all news organizations are created equal. In practice, the WHCA gives priority to requests from news outlets that have members on the WHCA’s board — a kind of insider trading and a prime reason for joining the board in the first place. It also gives priority to news organizations whose journalists cover the president regularly and staff the reporting “pools” that travel to presidential events. (The Washington Post will have seven of the 260 tables this year.) The rest of the tickets are sold to organizations at the WHCA president’s “discretion,” according to a WHCA document.
This makes the WHCA chief simultaneously one of the most and least popular people in the media world, depending on the decision, for a few weeks each year. “It’s very hard to say ‘no’ when Rupert Murdoch calls up asking for more tickets,” says one WHCA insider, with only slight exaggeration.
This year, the ticket czar is Wall Street Journal reporter Carol Lee, the WHCA’s president. Asked about how she decides who gets what for the dinner, Lee sighed. “It’s a very complicated thing,” she said.
Aside from the dinner’s “optics problem” (journalists cavorting with the people they’re supposed to cover), the most persistent critique of the dinner is that too few actual White House correspondents get to attend. Although tickets (sold by tables of 10 at $3,000 each) are technically offered only to association members, seats often are swept up by media company higher-ups and eventually doled out to celebrities, government officials, advertisers or FOPs — friends of the publishers — effectively cutting out the grunts who report the news.
The problem, Lee says, is that although the WHCA sells the tickets, it doesn’t control who the buyers invite.
Lee said she has put out the word that the WHCA would like to see more of the actual White House press corps, including photographers and videographers, get tickets. “We make that very clear,” she said, “but we can’t force them to do that.”
The organization is considering a few tweaks to its ticket-distribution policies. One is a proposal to set aside tickets that bona fide White House journalists could buy on a one-off basis. (The downside is that it would further restrict the number of tables that media companies could buy, intensifying headaches for the association).
Another idea, moving the dinner to a larger venue such as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, proved too expensive.
A third possibility: raising the price of tickets, which would generate even more funds for the WHCA’s annual scholarships. But at an effective price of $300 per head, the WHCA is already bumping up against the ceiling on gifts set by federal ethics rules, said Julia Whiston, the group’s executive director. Setting the price higher might push past those limits and keep government officials from accepting invitations, she said.
As the cost of the event climbs and ticket revenue remains static, the association faces the prospect of losing money. “We have gradually made less and less on the dinner each year,” said Whiston, who has been with the organization for 24 years. “Will there be a tipping point where ticket prices don’t cover our costs? I hope not.”
That scenario sounds like a fundraiser’s nightmare: The WHCA may wind up unable to afford its own dinner.