What Henry Fairlie Would Say About Saturday Night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner


Henry Fairlie: “Celebrity has become the main threat to journalism, especially in Washington.”

From a Q and A with British journalist Henry Fairlie in the April 1989 Washingtonian:

Q. Why are more members of the media now stars?

A. This comes from journalism in Washington, not elsewhere. Washington journalism has created something that to me is absolutely embarrassing and outrageous: an arrogant elite. It started with Watergate. The idea that the Washington Post did something so very remarkable in Watergate swelled the heads of Washington journalists. They soon learned that if they appeared on these television talk shows, they got invited to lecture to trade associations at enormous fees.

Q. What about the relationships between journalists and government?

A. It’s much too close. When I arrived, I was startled at the coziness between columnists and politicians.

Q. Do Washington journalists do a poor job as a result of this commingling?

A. They are not inclined to dig deep into the connection between money and politics in Washington. If it becomes a scandal, they’ll go after it. But the fact that it goes on all the time doesn’t make them keep it before the people. I don’t see how they can when they’re so close to the money side themselves.

Q. Does Washington still hold the attraction to you that it once did?

A. No.

Q. Why not?

A. Because of this link between journalism, power, and money, journalists are less free than when I came. There’s no real speaking the mind and causing a nuisance. Now they’ve all become terribly pompous, and see themselves as the fourth estate.

But I still love Washington as a place to live. It has greens and woods. And it has convenience.

Q. Should a young person go into journalism?

A. Yes, but not in Washington. They should go to a local paper and start general reporting. If young journalists start in general reporting, they’re never going to fear being fired since they can always go back to reporting.

It’s terrifying to see people straight out of a university who want to go to the Washington Post or New Republic and write opinions. They have never been reporters. They haven’t covered the courts or a fire, reporting that gives you the best education in the world.

Q. Looking back on all your experience, give us some broad lessons.

A. Women are more interesting than men because they’re more realistic. They’re funnier, which goes with being more realistic. And they relatively independent. They have real friendships.

Take what you do seriously but never take yourself seriously. Never stop reading good books. Be aware that the main reason for being a journalist is to go on learning; that’s the main pleasure I get out of it.

Finally, avoid celebrity at all costs. It’s especially death for a writer or a journalist. Celebrity has become the main threat to journalism, especially in Washington.
A 2016 update from the Washingtonian on the relatively small amount of money the dinner raises for college scholarships for journalism students. The scholarships are the reason the IRS has designated the White House Correspondents’ Association a charitable organization.

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