Donald Trump’s election is “raising questions and some fears” among members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, who worry how the president-elect may approach their annual dinner.
“Will he come? Ask for money to go a charity? Threaten not coming? Or does he see it as a high-profile event, drawing more attention to it?” one anonymous former board member told Poynter’s James Warren. “It certainly has the potential to be a train wreck, and it’s possible that the Trump team would see that as a good thing,” former CBS and CBS News spokesperson Tom Goodman said.
Sorry, it could become a train wreck? An oppositional press dressing up fancy and clinking Champagne flutes with the people it’s supposed to be covering? I don’t claim to speak for my coworkers, but I’m not the only person who thinks this thing is a moral calamity–the New York Times has wisely forbidden its journalists to attend since 2007. Tom Brokaw accurately described the spectacle as, “‘We’re Versailles. The rest of you eat cake.’”
The counter-argument is that journalism wet blankets like me just don’t understand how transactional, access-based reporting works. Whether you’re meeting a source at a coffeeshop or around a table paid for by your media organization, you’re still working them, opening them up to eventually spilling the beans. Who cares how ridiculous that looks?
Why don’t we ask that question as we enjoy this clip from the 2007 Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner. It’s a different event but it’s organized around the same principles as the WHCA.
This display took place four years after the US press largely fell in line with the Bush White House’s bogus case for war with Iraq, and it’s a pretty good reminder that even as you think you’re corrupting your sources (which you absolutely should be doing!), they’re probably working just as hard at corrupting you. It’s fine to meet these people. Just don’t flatter yourself that when you’re palling around with them on TV, you’re the only party gaining an advantage.
Okay, Mr. No Fun, what about those scholarships the celebrity-magnet dinner raises money for? Yeah, about that. You could donate to your favorite journalism program instead, or give money to a nonprofit news source–right now, the Knight Foundation is matching gifts to many of those.
Your money may go farther that way: As Luke Mullins has reported, contributions to the WHCA jumped 162 percent from 2009-2013, but the percentage of money that went to scholarships went from 60 percent in 2009 to 21.5 percent in 2014. The organization gave $86,550 to scholarships in 2014 and its counsel said it planned to give the same amount in 2015. “It strikes me that the primary purpose is to promote opportunities for journalists,” The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations author Bruce Hopkins told Mullins.
If you’re a journalist, and your concern about attending next April’s dinner is that a president who openly despises the press may be there, you might want to think way back to last month when Trump was elected, and everyone in our business was wondering how we missed it. Swipe through your phone’s camera roll from last April. You may find a clue or two.