You are forgiven if you thought this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a rerun. As with previous episodes, it featured a comedian whose entirely predictable raunchy fare came in for harsh, hypocritical denunciations; revulsion over the spectacle of media elites partying with politicians, lobbyists, and celebrities; and, of course, the ritual calls to end this benighted bacchanal once and for all.
“It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”
My purpose here today is not to offer yet another critique of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine. For what it’s worth, I thought she was pretty good. Despite what you may have heard, she did not mock the physical appearance of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Instead, she delivered an R-rated political monologue of the sort that should have surprised no one. “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, a writer, director, and comedian, told The New York Times.
So why the fake outrage? It has a lot to do with what the event has become: a celebration of money and power so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it has come define everything that we hate about Washington.
Earlier this week I rewatched “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a 2015 documentary by the former Politico journalist Patrick Gavin. The film offers an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look behind the scenes at how the dinner metastasized from the first modest gathering in 1921, attended by 50 people, to the bought-and-paid-for spectacle it has become: a five-day affair marked by some two dozen parties and, of course, the dinner itself, which now draws some 2,600 people. I have showed it to several of my classes, and they are invariably appalled by the wretched excess that’s on display.
Not to mention the rude manners. Gavin devotes part of the film to showing us Washington reporters and their guests talking over virtually everything that’s taking place on the podium: kids winning scholarships (a total of $100,000 is awarded each year, which is, as Gavin notes, a pittance compared to the opulence of the event itself), Ray Charles performing “Georgia on My Mind,” even a Marine color guard.
“Washington audiences liquored up want to talk to each other,” explains George Condon of National Journal. “They don’t want to listen to the entertainers.”
What is truly revolting, though, takes place away from the dinner. Because, as Gavin shows, the event has long since devolved into decadence. The real stars of the week aren’t the reporters, aren’t the politicians, aren’t even the celebrities. Rather, they are the corporations and lobbyists. “It’s about influence and playing the Washington game,” the publishing and advertising executive Kenny Day tells Gavin.
As Gavin acknowledges, even at the time that he was making his film there was a sense that the dinner had begun its slow slide to irrelevance. A signal moment in that decline, he says, was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s outspoken criticism in 2012. “If there's ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said. “It is time to rethink it.”
Of course, that slide has only accelerated under President Trump, who — unlike virtually all of his predecessors — has stayed away from the dinner. No doubt his absence added to the controversy over Michelle Wolf. Whereas previous comedians who got rough directed their barbs at the president (Don Imus with Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush), Wolf was stuck with picking on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. As CNN media analyst Brian Stelter put it, “The president is usually the center of gravity at the dinner, and the comedian serves as the counter-balance. But with Trump absent, the dinner is off-balance.”
The result was an impossible situation for the press corps, which came off as sycophantic and nasty at the same time. “It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “But the dinner somehow pulls it off.”
The White House Correspondents Dinner and all that goes with it became an embarrassment years ago, and it’s only getting worse. So what is the solution? Get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Drive a wooden stake through its corrupt and malignant heart.
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of "The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century."