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Steve Hansen: White House journalists dinner raises ethics concerns

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Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 12:28 am

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

Most people know this organization by their elaborate annual dinners — a tradition since the early 1920s. The banquet has grown from about 50 male reporters to the giant extravaganza that it is today and now hosts more than 2,600 people.

The president, cabinet members, CEOs, congressional members, governors, Hollywood stars and sports figures, along with anyone else who’s in a position of power, try to attend the affair and be seen rubbing elbows with the Washington elite.

It’s not easy for reporters to get a ticket to what has been called the “Nerd Prom.” Attendees must be White House news reporters with access to the briefing rooms. They must also be members of the WHCA, a news organization that sponsors White House correspondents.

So, how do the others get in? They are known as “guests” and are invited by the media corporations, which pay about $2,750 for a table of 10. Tickets are usually sold out on the first day.

My mother was a White House reporter during the Kennedy and Johnson years, but I don’t believe she had much interest in the “prom.” In those days, the White House Correspondents’ Association was primarily a boys’ club. Also, she just wasn’t into snobbery, elitism and flash.

The 2014 dinner held two weeks ago turned out not to disappoint for glitz and glamour. The beautiful Washington Hilton, located near Dupont Circle, has been the site for the event in recent years. It has one of the largest ballrooms in the country — filled this night with 260 round dinner tables.

The show began with the red carpet arrivals. It was a scene that looked more like the entrance to the Oscars than a press dinner. Media photographers lined up to take pictures. Among the camera flashes, Hollywood stars strutted their stuff in designer gowns with hand-on-hip and over-the-shoulder poses.

Politicians intermingled with the crowd, and people who are polar opposites got together momentarily, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. John McCain. They yukked it up and posed for pictures like two fraternity brothers.

The dinner entrée was filet mignon, surrounded by words on the menu that I can’t pronounce or understand. More than 60 chefs were involved in the production. Of course, special meals were prepared for the fussy who considered themselves “gluten intolerant” or had other dietary or religious exclusions.

Participants seemed to relish their upscale dining and did not show much concern about their 46.5 million fellow Americans living on food stamps.

The stated purpose of the dinner was to raise money for journalism scholarships. For 2014, all except one were awarded to women and minorities. At the same time, a select group of correspondents were honored for their recent works.

The main speaker was Barack Obama. Presidents have often been keynote speakers at this event since 1924.

President Obama looked somewhat uncomfortable with the customary theme of self-deprecating humor. But he got in a few good ones, such as, “If people want to be paid for not working, they should run for Congress” and “A Nobel Peace Prize is given to just about anybody these days.”

The final speaker is often a comedian. This time, it was Joel McHale, who seemed to get more groans than laughs — especially for his insensitive fat “jokes” about Gov. Chris Christie, who was present at the event.

While the White House correspondence dinner has become one of the main social gatherings in Washington, it’s not without controversy. Those who support the affair say it is one day of the year where differences are put aside and everyone simply enjoys the evening.

However, others find it disturbing — especially in a country where the press is supposed to keep a close eye on government shenanigans. Instead, its members are hobnobbing and back-slapping with the politically powerful. There are also several before and after parties where the gallivanting continues.

Executives at the New York Times are so concerned about the ethics of this situation that they and their representatives have not attended the dinner since 2007.

For those interested in this gala gathering but who do not have the influence to obtain a ticket, the entire event can be seen on C-SPAN. It is usually held on the last Saturday in April. By watching, you’ll be able to judge the controversy for yourself.

However, you will have to supply your own filet mignon.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Kevin Paglia posted at 1:10 pm on Wed, May 21, 2014.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    I have found Lodi to be pretty much like every other town I have lived in when it comes to acceptance. You get what you serve. Negativity is met with negativity and positive met with positive.

    We transplanted here in 2007 and with the exception of one neighbor at our rental who thought our business was her business, people have been great here. I immediately got involved in coaching and know many parents through that who are wonderful people. The first few days at church we had dozens of people coming over and talking to us. Even to this day we I am out and about on my 4-wheel bike the nicest people stop to talk to me, invite me to social/community outreach group. We have recently been more involved with the motorcycle community which is full of amazing people.

    Our only complaint about Lodi is the severe lack of any kind of night life in town. We have to go to Sacramento to find a decent club.

  • Christina Welch posted at 9:04 pm on Mon, May 19, 2014.

    Christina Welch Posts: 460

    Thank you for rehashing AGAIN your experiences in this "terrible" town...

    "I was schooled quite extensively when I first arrived by several natives," I think you actually used that very line in another post, the one with Ms Mounce, perhaps? I don't remember exactly; too bad Darrell isn't here with his archives.

    And thank you again for using your rant about Lodi as a deflection from the topic at hand, Mr Hansen's article. Pretty much what I expected

    And, yes, Ms Bobin, I am a native. What comments have I possibly made stating otherwise? What do you like to say to everyone else--can you prove where I said that, in what post, etc etc etc. Your Ad hominem attack is simply ridiculous. Again, pretty much what I expected. Guess I should just be glad to see my name not in quotation marks anymore...

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 1:05 pm on Mon, May 19, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Ooooh! Sorry, Ms. Welch!

    I've worked and lived in Lodi for the past 37 years and know Lodi quite well. I was schooled quite extensively when I first arrived by several natives and a couple of transplants.

    Funny how natives are eager to tell you about all of the rotten-goings on and the "good-old-boy" network - especially those who were picked up in the middle of the night and sent off to a concentration camp for 5 long years - then came back to find their property and belongings had been stolen out from under them - YES - in "liveable, loveable Lodi." What GREAT neighbors!

    And most transplants will tell you that even after 30 years or more they are still regarded as aliens - never accepted, never will be. The difference with myself and my husband is that we don't care if we are accepted or not. And my children got out as soon as they could, realizing that as "nice" as Lodi seems, it is far from idyllic, and most of the native residents are into cliques and pettiness.

    Lodi may be a very clean town and have a relatively low crime rate, but it is no panacea. And, unfortunately for you, I have no plans on moving away as it suits me quite well - especially being a long-time resident.

    As for you claiming to be a native Lodian - I'm shocked since I have read several of your comments stating that YOU are a recent transplant - which is it?

  • Christina Welch posted at 9:20 am on Mon, May 19, 2014.

    Christina Welch Posts: 460

    I am not disagreeing with your assessment about D.C., Ms Bobin, and I don't need to live in a big city to "get smart and learn." I'm glad to see that you are equally "getting nowhere" like myself in this small town of Lodi. Perhaps you should move back to whatever big city you came from. I was born and raised in this little town, and I am quite happy here. From reading your many posts, it seems quite clear that you are not.

    The point I was making in my previous comment was that Mr Hansen's article was not the meaningless and biased report as you stated. The article was quite timely considering the Correpondent's Dinner just recently occurred and was the topic of many articles from other reporters in other newspapers. It was not the "plagiarism of ideas" from Jesse Watters as you stated; Hansen's article said nothing about media bias, it was a commentary on the ethics of the dinner itself, on both sides of the aisle. You were looking for the right-wing bias, just as you always do. Sour grapes on your part. Pure and simple.

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 9:36 am on Sun, May 18, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Yeah - if you follow Roxanne Roberts - especially her appearances on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," on NPR, you would know that she is the ultimate DC gossip monger, always flaunting her knowledge of the DC insider scene.

    And, if you had ever lived and worked in DC, this is nothing new. DC is a dog-eat-dog town - and if you aren't in the current milieu, you might as well move somewhere else.

    That's DC politics, such as it is. It's not going to change anytime soon. It's how business gets done.

    Never lived in a big city? Get smart and learn. Otherwise, you get nowhere, Ms. Welch.

  • Christina Welch posted at 10:33 pm on Sat, May 17, 2014.

    Christina Welch Posts: 460

    For those not predisposed to thinking of Mr. Hansen's work as meaningless right wing rhetoric, you might want to check out this article from the Washington Post. It addresses the news corps obsession with celebrity and self-promotion much like Steve's article. I particularly like Tom Brokaw's comments:


  • Joanne Bobin posted at 3:12 pm on Fri, May 16, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Unfortunately, Dr. Hansen - school counselor turned satirist turned right wing idealogue, seems to always pick a topic that is so meaningless that it appears that his only goal is to complain about liberals/progressives and nit-pick about silly things like the White House Correspondents' Dinner - which BTW, is an echo of Jesse Watters (Bill O'Reilly's producer) bit on the bias of the press core.

    Plagiarism of ideas?

    Really - just what is wrong with an annual dinner - a 100 year-old tradition - where speakers can make self-deprecating jokes and pretty soft-core jokes about colleagues. Why are people attending this if it is suddenly, according to Dr. Hansen, a meaningless event that makes the press seem suspiciously in bed with politicians?

    "Hobnobbing and back-slapping?" These journalists spend a lot of time covering politicians. What Dr. Hansen is suggesting is that there should be NO social contact between the two - impossible in a city like Washington, DC.

    Sour Grapes. Pure and simple.

  • Christina Welch posted at 8:49 pm on Thu, May 15, 2014.

    Christina Welch Posts: 460

    Good article, Steve...definitely some food for thought [smile]


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