Washington's wildest party
I reported on Washington's biggest party for journalists.
Now I'm an outcast.
During last year's White House Correspondents Dinner, I remember nodding along with my television set when Christi Parsons, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times and The White House Correspondents' Association President gave her opening remarks.
“I think of this as a rite of spring,” Parsons said , “a time when we recommit ourselves – as a group, publicly — to the common purpose that brings us all together: The fight for openness, transparency and press freedom for ourselves and people everywhere.”
What I've come to discover in the year since those lofty, inspirational remarks were delivered is that while White House reporters make their living doing the important work of asking tough questions of others, they don't often enjoy having tough questions asked of them.
I know this because I asked those very questions.
I covered the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner for a decade as a reporter for Politico, the Washington Examiner and mediabistro's FishbowlDC website, and I watched it grow from a relatively tame event during the George W. Bush administration into what it is nowadays: A nearly week-long affair that brings in an endless parade of celebrities, corporate sponsorships and “related” parties (two dozen at this point).
And I was as much of a partaker in the fun and frivolity as anyone. I'd grab up free swag as if I was a contestant on Nickelodeon's “Super Toy Run” game show. I'd clamor for selfies with celebrities. I'd try to hit up as many parties as possible, just to – I'm not totally sure — say that I did…?
And when the inconvenience of having to do my actual day job (that is, journalism) reared its head, I'd inevitably glamorize the whole spectacle by asking such hard-hitting questions as, “Are you excited to meet Justin Bieber?” and “Who did you party with last night?”
But, like an ice cream vendor, if you hang around the sweet and sugary stuff long enough, you're eventually going to need a major detox if you ever want to live with yourself. For me, that urge to self-cleanse came in 2014.
I left my job at Politico at that time to work on my first documentary, “ Nerd Prom: Inside Washington's Wildest Week ,” and what I initially intended to be a rather simple, innocent portrait of an interesting event turned into a critical look at Washington's biggest annual event as my reporting inevitably revealed some ugly truths. What was billed as a celebration of journalism, political correspondents and college scholarships was nothing more than a fabulous business, marketing and branding opportunity for endless entities.
The film paints an unflattering picture of the dinner and its related festivities, but not in a sensational or irresponsible way. And that's just not director's pride speaking: The Association's previous president, Christi Parsons, told me after viewing the movie that, while she didn't share all of the film's viewpoints, there was nothing in the movie that was factually inaccurate. On Twitter, former White House correspondent Joe Curl called the film “ tough but fair .” One former White House Correspondents' Association president told me recently that “The thing you need to know about your movie is: It could have been so much meaner.”
Still, blowback came.
I received emails from the Association's lawyer telling me that I had, despite my efforts at fairness, taken cheap shots by pointing out that the Association spends more on CEO compensation than program services, a practice almost unheard of in the world of nonprofits. But the truth is the truth, and the facts about the Association's spending were backed up by reporting published in The Washington Post , the Washingtonian and the nation's leading charity watchdog, Charity Navigator.
When the movie premiered in Washington last April, White House correspondent Bill Press asked during the subsequent Q&A whether I'd ever eat lunch in this town again; and, drawing upon my history of gossipy coverage of the dinner that I copped to in the film's first five minutes, bluntly wondered: “Aren't you the last one to criticize other reporters?” (As it happens, I still eat lunch in this town – but some invitations I used to count on have now begun to vanish.)
When the film recently screened at a film festival, one former White House Correspondents' Association president told me during a Q&A that the film had, in many respects, “tarred and feathered” the good work of White House correspondents and the Association itself.
So audacious was my turn to serious journalism that both Press (in a post-screening Q&A) and the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove (in his review of the film) accused me of simply “acting.” Washington's appetite for born-again journalism, it seems, has its limits.
The ripple effects have extended beyond the simple film itself. I recently joined the White House press corps in covering daily White House press briefings only to find that many of the people I used to be friendly with now brush past me with a glare. It's an uncomfortable feeling — a “what is he doing here?” aura that hangs like a dark cloud over less prestigious reporters, and, in my case, outcasts.
It's been hard not to notice being ostracized and ridiculed by many associated with the dinner for the simple task of doing the very thing that the weekend is supposed to celebrate: Journalism. Some of the White House correspondents who sat down for interviews with me for the film now no longer return my emails and phone calls, regardless of the topic.
It's been a year since the film came out, but I'm sad to say that not much has changed. I recently contacted every board member and officer of the White House Correspondents' Association in anticipation of this year's dinner to ask for an interview about the Association's practices and less than half got back to me. And, due to personal or scheduling conflicts, none were able to talk. The Association's executive director said she was too busy planning the dinner to answer any questions. (To her credit, the Association's current president, Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal, and The Association's lawyer took significant time to answer a number of my questions by email).
Journalists ought to stand up for rigorous reporting, even if it is at their expense. We always hear that reporters have the thinnest skin of all, but this character trait ought to be filed under “room for improvement” instead of “standard operating procedure.” After all, journalism's most important trait is its commitment to exposing the truth in the full. If we can't commit ourselves to doing that, what's left about the profession to celebrate?
If there is one common response I get to my film, it is that the film's final moments – an extensive and exhaustive account of why the work of White House correspondents is important, under attack and worthy of our support – are among its most powerful. It is a call to action to support journalism, transparency and access – the very things that the White House Correspondents' Association's mission statement (which, by the way, qualifies it as a 501c3 nonprofit thanks to its charitable and educational objectives) espouses explicitly: “To promote excellence in journalism and educate the public about the field of journalism and the process of reporting about the White House.”
As the nation's eyes descend upon the Washington Hilton this Saturday to watch the Association's annual dinner, I hope that Americans overlook the glitz and glamour in order to pick up on — and rally behind — this important cause.
And the Association that throws that very dinner? They ought to embrace that cause as well.