White House Correspondents’ Dinner Presses On—2,500 Journalists in Black-Tie and an Open Bar

From a Washington Post story by Roxanne Roberts headlined “White House correspondents’ dinner presses on, after covid delays and Trump”:

Grab your tux and your vaccination card: The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has returned complete with President Biden, Trevor Noah, 2,500 journalists and a fierce defense of a free press and an open bar. The nerd prom is back in all its overly earnest, celebrity-studded, schmooze-or-lose glory.

For the first time in six years, the black-tie extravaganza that Washington loves and hates features both a big-name comedian and the president. The organizers hope this return to business-as-usual will help highlight the traditional purpose of the night: a celebration of the role of reporters in a democracy and the mutual respect between those reporters and Washington’s power brokers, after years of Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news.”

Saturday’s dinner is the first held post-Trump, who boycotted the event during his White House years. In 2018, comedian Michelle Wolf savaged administration officials — including press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was sitting feet away — and organizers invited a safer choice, historian Ron Chernow, to speak the following year.

That was the last WHCA dinner before the global pandemic shut it down for two years. This year’s event follows the Gridiron Club dinner earlier this month, where the 600 guests were required to show proof of vaccination — but more than 10 percent tested positive for the viruswithin days. Most experienced mild symptoms; there were no reports of hospitalizations.

Despite the Gridiron cases, the WHCA never considered canceling. In addition to proof of vaccination, it is requiring all guests to provide proof of a same-day negative rapid test before admission into the ballroom, which will be at full capacity. Many of the parties before and after the dinner are asking for proof of vaccination. Still, some White House officials and experts worry that coronavirus measures for the weekend are insufficient and that it could become a superspreader event.

All of this — Biden presence, Trump’s attacks and the waning pandemic — factored into the decision to proceed this year.

“So much of our dinner will be about the substance and the moment,” says Steven Portnoy, WHCA president and correspondent for CBS News. “And it’s meant to foster a better public appreciation for the essential role that journalists play in American life and society, in helping Americans govern and helping America govern itself.”

The organization brought in Bob Bain, an awards show producer working pro bono, and will present its first lifetime achievement award to 1950s journalists Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, the first two African American women in the White House press corps — and have named it the Dunnigan-Payne Prize. The evening will also pay tribute to journalists who have died in Ukraine, and to acknowledge threats that reporters face all over the world.

There was a time, of course, when this was a little-known evening. The reporters held their first dinner in 1921, and President Calvin Coolidge joined the party in 1924 — a small affair of about 50 people. The evening was a chance for the press and the politicians they cover to spend a few hours informally getting to know one another, a useful tool in the nation’s capital. “They work for the public, and our obligation is to develop a trust relationship with these people so that we can learn things that the public needs to know,” says Portnoy.

There are those, of course, who view these interactions as a cozy confab of elites; the New York Times stopped buying tables for the dinner in 2008, although the paper’s reporters and columnists are regulars at before- and after-parties.

The annual black-tie party attracted little national attention until 1987, when Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly walked in with Fawn Hall, the former secretary to Oliver North at the center of the Iran-contra affair. The following year he brought Donna Rice (Gary Hart’s ill-timed paramour) and the evening was transformed from a nerdy roast to a paparazzi feeding frenzy.

And sure, it was fun to watch President Bill Clinton and actor Martin Sheen (a.k.a. President Bartlet of “The West Wing”) laugh it up at the 2000 dinner, one of the more meta moments of the annual lovefest. For the past two decades, every A, B and C-lister who could score a ticket would hit the red carpet then bee-line to their favorite politician to talk about international tariffs. (Kidding! They can barely name their senators.)

The night is still a valuable reminder of the importance of a free press, and it supports scholarships for student journalists, said a veteran Washington correspondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. But the event is “out of control,” he says. “It’s simply gotten too big. The noise level is ridiculous; the only time the roar abates is when POTUS and the entertainer are speaking.” And the real problem? “Hundreds of guests who have absolutely nothing to do with journalism, much less White House correspondents.”

In 2011, one of those guests was Trump, who was mocked by both President Barack Obama and comedian Seth Meyers — a humiliation many believed fueled his presidential campaign five years later. “Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican,” quipped Meyers. “Which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” Trump came to the dinner again in 2015, the last time before his boycott. After Wolf’s 2018 speech, he tweeted, “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it.”

Trump repeatedly denounced the media as “enemy of the people.” Which raises the question: How does this dinner play in Peoria? The press sipping champagne and trading jokes with politicians feels perfectly harmless to Washington’s establishment, but it looks uncomfortably cozy outside the Beltway. The number of Americans who have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media has dropped to 36 percent, according to a September 2021 Gallup poll — second lowest in the poll’s history.

But that has not deterred the WHCA; if anything, there’s a renewed resolve to use the program (broadcast live on C-SPAN) to underscore its message. That gravitas, however, will have to compete with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson, who are slated to attend as guests of Disney/ABC, reports Page Six.

“They always talk about the room where it happens, and what happens in that room reverberates for the entire year because it’s when policymakers and celebrities and everyone else gets together,” says Tammy Haddad, a media consultant at the center of the WHCA dinner festivities (who is also a consulting producer for Washington Post Live).

With Biden in the room, this year is reminiscent of the 2016 dinner that featured Obama and (a lackluster) Larry Wilmore, the last one where the president and comedian traded good-natured political jabs. Noah accepted the WHCA’s invitation to perform fresh off hosting the Grammys (through a representative, he declined to comment about why).

Biden’s attendance, says Haddad, signals a return to the traditional relationship between the White House and the press — sometimes respectful, often fraught, but always essential. “Both parties have sharpened their edges against the other party, and I think the easiest thing you can always do in politics is to bash the media. But if the media wasn’t so important, there wouldn’t be such an emphasis on taking it on.”

Twenty-nine years ago, Haddad hosted a backyard brunch for about 25 media friends; NBC’s Tim Russert showed up with Barbra Streisand, and Pandora’s box flew open. Now the parties span four days, a frenzy of corporate branding and celebrity gawking.

The 2022 soirees started Thursday — an enterprising party surfer could score free food and drink all over town. Haddad’s Saturday brunch — this year’s focus is on veterans — will be filled with reporters but is technically off the record (“’Overheards’ is strongly discouraged,” organizers told the working press). For several years, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg hosted the most exclusive after-party, at the French Ambassador’s residence; Paramount has taken over and will showcase stars from CBS, MTV, Comedy Central and Showtime. (Trevor Noah alert!) But Paramount will be competing with the NBCUniversal after-party and another hosted by TheGrio, celebrating White House correspondent April Ryan and other Black journalists: Mary J. Blige and Chris Tucker are slated to perform. Hung over? Politico’s A-list brunch Sunday at the home of Robert and Elena Allbriton caps off the weekend.

Which brings us to the party crasher no one wants to talk about: covid-19.

“Hindsight is always a cheap date, of course, but on balance I don’t think we’d have done anything differently,” said Gridiron President Tom DeFrank of lessons learned after so many tested positive following the club’s dinner. In 2020, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, initially signed up to attend but bowed out a few days before the dinner itself was called off. This year, “Our first invited guest was literally Dr. Fauci,” who accepted. “So the fact that Fauci was onboard this time reinforced our view that the dinner could proceed safely.”

Fauci said he followed CDC guidelines: He was vaccinated and boosted, Gridiron guests had to show proof of vaccination, and cases in Washington were low. But this week, he said will not attend the WHCA dinner because of covid concerns. The White House said Biden would still come but skip the dinner portion and might wear a mask at times. (Vice President Harris tested positive and is quarantining at home.)

The Washington Post nixed its traditional predinner reception this year. “It’s a confined space,” explained publisher Fred Ryan. “It seemed like an unnecessary risk.” But The Post has purchased 10 tables at the dinner, for editors, reporters and guests of the newspaper. Post employees are tested once a week, said Ryan, and exposure is less likely sitting at table than in a crowded reception.

Plus, he really wants to go: “We think it’s a very important celebration of White House correspondents and journalism in general.”

Which is exactly what Portnoy wants to hear.

“We really are trying to make this dinner meaningful,” he says. “We have a very important message that we intend to deliver, and we’re glad for the audience in the room and the audience watching on television to hear it.”

Roxanne Roberts is a reporter covering Washington’s social, political and philanthropic power brokers. She has been at The Washington Post since 1988, working for the Style section as a feature writer and columnist.

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