But that explanation belies a fraught process by which the annual dinner’s 2,600 tickets are distributed — all influenced by a stew of power plays, ego, and money. Think politics is just for politicians? Welcome to the creation of the seating chart for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Here are the basics: The non-profit White House Correspondents’ Association, whose members include the reporters, producers, camera operators and other journalists regularly covering The White House, controls the dinner’s seating and ticketing. The WHCA sells the 2,600 seats in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton only to their members. (That’s 260 tables for ten at $300 a seat, with the proceeds funding scholarships.)
And this is where things start to get complicated. Jockeying by news organizations to score as many tables as possible had gotten out of hand in recent years, with organizations like Bloomberg, FOX News, and Politico scooping up a dozen or more each. But this year, the association enforced a maximum of seven tables per media outlet (including, in full disclosure, for the Washington Post), in an effort to quell the infighting.
And that’s only the matter of distributing the tickets to media organizations. Once it’s settled how many tables each outlet gets, there’s drama over how the newsfolk distribute them.
There’s long been grousing among actual White House correspondents that the tickets are gobbled up by their organization’s bigwigs: network anchors, top editors, and management. In recent years, dinner-watchers have noticed a definite corporate creep, with more tickets going to top advertisers (sometimes resulting in uncomfortable arrangements) and fewer to actual reporters and their guests.
“We would always prefer that the cameraman who’s in the briefing room every day gets a seat instead of an advertiser,” says a former WHCA board member, who acknowledges that “that’s not always the case.”
Often, TV networks who share corporate parentage with entertainment divisions wind up with “talent” at the table (the cast of ABC’s “Scandal” was everywhere at the 2014 dinner; the stars of its sitcom “Black-ish” did last year’s fete).
And celebrities without a corporate tie have another option: Often, their publicists peddle celebrity guests to journos with access to tickets, hoping that the poor scribes will be sufficiently impressed by the opportunity to squire around a glamorous guest. One White House reporter described a recent email she got offering up three “celebrity guests” who would love to accompany her to the dinner.
“I’d only heard of one of them,” she said.
Many reporters with tickets instead prefer to invite potential sources, like high-level members of the administration, senior White House staffers or lawmakers and their top staffers. The AP, for example, only invites sources, not celebrities. But that’s not so simple, either. Courting the best “gets” starts months beforehand, and the White House keeps tabs on who’s going with whom, making sure to distribute top staffers to all the major outlets. “They want to make sure everyone’s getting facetime and everyone’s happy,” says a White House reporter.
Then there’s the seating chart itself. In a ballroom as cavernous as the Hilton’s, the old maxim about “location, location, location” holds true. The WHCA determines the seating chart, and former board members and correspondents say they tend to reward media outlets with members who have been most active in the organization with good real estate.
Getting prime tables is a way to attract top-flight guests, journos say. “It’s the difference between being up close where you can lay eyes on the president and feel like you’re in a room with him — and being in the back where it’s dark… and you feel like you could be getting a better view on C-SPAN,” says one dinner veteran. Guests have been known to sniff at bad seats — or simply walk out, like philanthropists Wayne and Catherine Reynolds did when they deemed that the table belonging to their host, Politico, wasn’t sufficiently prominent.
This grand game of musical chairs is happening now, in the weeks before the first guest arrives at the Hilton on April 30, occupying the brainpower of a high-level slice of official Washington (and that’s before you even get to picking dresses and getting on the guest lists to the best parties). Says another longtime attendee: “The amount of time and energy that goes into this dinner is astounding.”