A year after Tom Brokaw criticized the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and its related social events as being too “glittering” and suggested it could be worsening the public’s impression of journalists, the dinner returns Saturday night and based on the heavy Hollywood attendance expected, it’s coming back with no diminished luster.
As Conan O'Brien readies for a second performance as host of the festivities, oft called the “Nerd Ball,” this year’s guest list includes Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Douglas, Paul Rudd and Michael J. Fox.
Once again, this year’s dinner will cement Washington’s annual turn as Tinseltown on the Potomac, the main event in a weekend of social activities that includes not only the dinner itself, but cocktail parties, lunches, brunches and related dinners. The dinner will feature not only a funny speech by a top comedian, but a funny one by the President of the United States. This year the correspondents’ dinner will be televised on both MSNBC and C-SPAN.
In recent years the dinner, which raises money for journalism scholarships, has grown from a one-night event into a weekend that represents the height of the Washington social season and combines the crème of the Washington political set with Hollywood.
Vanity Fair and Bloomberg sponsor one after dinner party, while Atlantic owner David and Katherine Bradley sponsor a Friday night dinner in just a few of the events.
As before the stars will be plentiful this year.
Tina Brown is bringing Weinstein and Kidman on behalf of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. Her other Hollywood-oriented guests include Barry Diller, "The Newsroom’s" Olivia Munn and Joel Kinnaman of "The Killing."
Time and Fortune are bringing Spielberg and Katzenberg as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and husband Brad Hall, and Olympics gymnast Gabby Douglas.
CNN, meanwhile, is hosting Banks, Rudd, Navid Negahban and Justin Bartha as well as University of Louisville guard Kevin Ware, who broke his foot in the March Madness college basketball finals.
ABC News’ guests include "Modern Family" stars Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen; "Nashville’s" Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere and Charles Esten; and Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn of "Scandal."
At CBS News, the guests include Claire Danes from Showtime’s "Homeland" and Daniel Dae Kim from "Hawaii Five-0." Ryan Zimmerman of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals and celebrity chef José Andrés.
NBC News is bringing Michael Douglas (who voices the introduction of NBC’s "Nightly News"), Fox (who will star in an NBC comedy series next year loosely about his life), his wife Tracy Pollan and Matthew Perry, star of the network’s "Go On" series.
The media outlets inviting Hollywood guests bring them to compliment more traditional Washington and their business guests.
CBS for instance is bringing several congressmen and retired Admiral Mike Mullet, former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. NBC’s other guests include members of the Federal Communications Commission, several senators and congressmen and several present and former White House officials.
Even as the event attracts glamor, it regularly attracts two kinds of criticism. Some question whether it replaces the picture of an adversarial and always questioning Fourth Estate with one in which reporters appear too chummy with the public officials they cover. Other critics point to the dinner’s Hollywood element and question whether raising reporters’ celebrity quotient hurts the press’s image with the public.
Last year The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column called the event, “decadent and depraved. It is elitist and shallow, smug and insidery, a three-day orgy of corporate preening and celebrity suck-up so far removed from its earnest D.C. journalism roots as to be completely meaningless.”
The column immediately dismissed its own criticism, suggesting the event was unchangeable, “so make the best of it.”
Other critics have been less sanguine. Jay Rosen, commenting on a decline in public confidence in the press showcased in a Gallup poll last year, called the dinner “ground zero” of concerns that the press is becoming part of the power structure.
“The glamorization of journalism after Watergate, combined with the influence of celebrity within the news tribe, plus the growing concentration of media ownership in a few large companies that themselves seek influence, [has] made mockery of the journalist as a courageous truthteller standing outside the halls of power,” Rosen wrote, saying all those concerns are on “vivid display” at the correspondents’ dinner.
Brokaw raised his concerns immediately after last year’s dinner. Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, he suggested the celebrities’ glamour disserves the media — increasing concerns the public has about “mainstream media” not fulfilling its traditional independent role.
“If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they are supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” said Brokaw. “It is time to rethink it.”
“I think George Clooney is a great guy. I would like to meet Charlize Theron. I don’t think the big press event in Washington should be that kind of glittering event where the whole talk is about Cristal champagne, taking over the Italian embassy, who had the best party, who got to meet the most people.
“That’s another separation between what we’re supposed to be doing and what the people expect us to be doing, and I think the Washington press corps has to look at that. It’s gone beyond what it needs to be,” Brokaw added.
Defenders of the dinner dismiss the criticisms suggesting that Washington reporters oft fierce and skeptical questioning of public officials hardly belies a press that has become part of the power structure. Instead they picture the dinner as a one night truce between the parties in 364 ¾ days of sustained conflict, a truce to raise money for a worthy cause.
Brokaw’s comments got an immediate push back last year from the correspondent’s group president Ed Henry, who noted in a radio interview that the event raised $100,000 for scholarships and that the Italian embassy event Brokaw mentioned was sponsored by Brokaw’s own MSNBC, not the correspondents association.
“I do think that there are challenges … that it sometimes looks too much like a celebrity fest and we have to do things to make sure that that doesn’t overshadow it, but we give a lot of money to needy students who are the next generation of journalists so there is a balance there,” said Henry.
Henry didn't immediately reply to a question about any changes this year.