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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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