The gigantic ethics violation that was once called the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and is now known as White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner Weekend, is fast upon us. The event originally served as a relatively harmless scaled-up version of the routine source-greasing that is traditionally performed at bars and restaurants. It has become a powerful metaphor for the incestuous relationship between the news media and the power elite.
The WHCD has evolved into a profitable leverage opportunity for media companies. They use the cachet of their brand name, and the access it gives them to the event, to lure celebrities and sell that access to corporations. The biggest media personalities are needed to lure in both the celebrity flesh and the corporate johns, but the rest of the reporters are completely superfluous to the exercise.
Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent and White House Correspondents’ Association chairman, hilariously defends the practice on the grounds that, hey, he’s trying:
“I have put a lot of energy into making sure as many White House correspondents as possible get invites, instead of celebrities and others. And, as we speak, I am working this very week with Jay Carney’s office on getting young staffers who work with the White House press corps some invites to the dinner,” Henry added. “As for celebrities, last time I checked it’s a free country, so individual news organizations can invite whomever they choose. It’s really not the WHCA’s place to dictate to members of our organization who to invite or who not to invite. But I continue to strongly encourage our members to invite as many journalists and White House aides to the dinner as possible because these are the people who deserve to be in the room for what is a very fun night.”
All we’re doing is providing rooms for these men and the prostitutes. We keep urging them to get to know each other, maybe read and discuss some Edith Wharton novels, but the men just keep having sex with the prostitutes. Oh, well, what are you gonna do? Not hold the event?
Henry also notes that the dinner raises “over 100k” in scholarships for needy kids, which is nice, though that turns out to be less than a single news organization spends on entertainment for the weekend.
In a fortunate coincidence of timing, Politico founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have written a surreal column about … well, what it’s about sort of depends on your perspective. In one sense, it’s about the smug culture of elite Washington. But this is really true only in the sense that the famous sorority e-mail is “about” the sexist culture of the Greek system. The putative subject of the column is a forthcoming book by Mark Leibovich entitled Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital. Allen and VandeHei use the column to report — or, rather, “report” — about how the book is being discussed by its subjects, the most prominent of which appears to be Allen himself, who has fashioned himself into both a social fixture and the quasi-official voice of Establishment Washington.
Like the sorority e-mail, the Politico column is an expression of rage against members of a society that have betrayed its ethos. The sorority letter wallows in its rage, while Allen and VandeHei conceal theirs beneath a tone of forced jocularity. (VandeHei describes Leibovich’s book as “a hoot.”) Both documents are both utterly repulsive yet oddly compelling, and even sympathetic, for the frankness with which they acknowledge themselves. They take the ethos of their culture utterly for granted. Of course a sorority exists to promote hookups with frat guys, and of course Washington journalists blend seamlessly with the powerful people they socialize and work with.
The Politico column examines not this culture itself but Leibovich’s role as critic of it. Leibovich has broached its content with various subjects, they report — this “assuages his guilt, while reassuring some subjects and rattling others.”
The book argues that all of Washington’s worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event.
“He’s at every single party, and NOW he takes the knife out?” protested one of Leibovich’s subjects. “And Russert’s funeral? People are appalled.”
Note that they are interested in Leibovich’s guilt, and that people are appalled not that Tim Russert’s funeral apparently became a scene of business but that a member of the tribe is reporting this.
Personally, I’m gratified Russert’s funeral can only be a onetime event — otherwise, by now news organizations would have found a way to sell tickets to their sponsors.