How to fix the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Keep it ‘boring,’ journalists say

- April 30, 2018

Past and future White House Correspondents’ Association officials, as well as media analysts, have a remedy for the recent string of headaches caused by the organization’s annual glitzy gala: Turn up the tedium.

The association is already looking ahead to reaching out to its membership to field ideas about shifting the focus of the event, its incoming president, Olivier Knox, told POLITICO on Monday. It’s a move that comes amid a wave of criticism for the latest iteration of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, including a scathing monologue by comedian Michelle Wolf.

Knox, elected to succeed Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev as the group’s president for the 2018-19 year, confirmed that he intends to touch base with the association’s members for input on a range of things, including the dinner, while acknowledging a desire to put a greater emphasis for the event back on the news media.

“I have said for years that I hoped the dinner would be ‘boring’ — shifting the center of gravity from the President, or the comic, or (Lord help us) the celebrities in the audience, to reporters,” he said in an email.

The event, often maligned by critics for bringing journalists together with those in power whom they seek to cover, gained an added level of controversy last year after President Donald Trump broke with decades of precedent by announcing plans to skip the event. After Wolf delivered a stinging rebuke of the president on Saturday, with no traditional retort from the absent Trump, many questioned whether it should go on as currently constituted.


But if efforts to reorient the dinner are to prove fruitful, several of the association’s past presidents told POLITICO in interviews on Monday, the group should consider doubling down on its journalism roots and dialing down the glamour.

“I do think that people involved in the association — not everybody, but a lot of us — have felt like the glitz has overshadowed things,” said Caren Bohan, a current Reuters editor and the group’s president for the 2011-12 year.

Bohan, who oversaw the 2012 dinner headlined by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, said she felt the service component “often did get lost in the celebrity aspect of the dinner.” But she declined to call for the association to remove the traditional stand-up routine by a comedian from the yearly schedule, as some have suggested.

“The format of the dinner should be something that the membership and the board talks about over the coming months,” she said in a phone interview. “All traditions can benefit from a discussion about whether something different needs to be done.”

The scorching and controversial routine by Wolf, a “Daily Show” contributor, united some members of the press corps with Trump in criticizing her performance, while others have pushed back against the outcry over the comedian’s jokes. The dustup prompted several prominent media critics to call for the event to be pared down or eliminated altogether.

“It may be time to give the jokes a rest,” Bob Deans, another former president of the correspondents organization, said in an email on Monday. “Find some other kind of entertainment.”


Ed Chen, who served as president of the group in 2009-10 and now works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, highlighted several paths forward for the event, including removing the comedy routine or eliminating the dinner altogether. But he also floated smaller changes that he argued would chip away at criticism of the event that paints the news media as elite or out of touch.

“If we have to have a dinner, go to business attire,” said Chen, taking aim at the event’s black-tie tradition. “It’s pretentious for a bunch of ink-stained wretches to dress up in black tie, looking like penguins.”

Chen said reducing the number of celebrities and advertisers invited to the dinner, and increasing the number of local and international media members, could also serve to buttress its underlying theme — the celebration of the First Amendment.

“I think one things to kind of get back to the roots of this thing as a journalism event” he said, “is to sell more tickets to more smaller outlets and individual reporters, freelancers.”

Asked whether the association was considering such measures — removing the comedy routine, including more local journalists and bolstering the service aspect of the evening — the incoming president, Knox, said those were “certainly ideas I’ve heard from inside and outside the WHCA.” But he declined to weigh in on what future steps the organization might take, saying he didn’t “want to get ahead of my outreach to WHCA members.” (Talev did not respond to a request for comment.)

Bohan, of Reuters, said she didn’t think an increased focus on the service component of the dinner would it more “boring,” while acknowledging that it would likely attract a different crowd.

“I can see where somebody in the entertainment business might not be as interested as I am in that part of the dinner,” she said, “but that’s the part that interests me the most, and that is the part that is most important to me.”


But Peter Vernon, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, argued that the association’s hallmark dinner could stand to have a bit more monotony.

“If it’s a boring and more toned-down affair, that’s probably a good thing right now,” Vernon told POLITICO on Monday, citing the current polarized political climate.

Vernon maintained that a greater emphasis on journalism basics could also serve to insulate the association from criticisms about a comedian’s controversial routine.

“If you can bring journalists from Washington and from local news organizations, that’s great,” he said. “It’s going to be a much more boring event, one that will probably not get the attention that having a comedian up there, you know, sharply criticizing the administration would.”


 

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