Patrick Gavin | I should begin by noting that few have been as critical of both the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the Association that throws it as I.
I did an entire documentary on the topic, I’ve penned critical article after critical article on the topic and, in the process, have made a lot of members of the White House Correspondents’ Association unhappy with me.
So, while I’d usually join in on any criticism being lobbed at this annual affair, the recent push to boycott the dinner (by the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, by op-ed writers and by “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon) doesn’t hit the mark.
The desire to boycott the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is motivated by angst at President Donald Trump’s outspoken disregard for the press. That’s a legitimate criticism, but skipping the dinner isn’t boycotting Donald Trump; it’s boycotting White House reporters.
(Quick aside: In the wake of the “Boycott Trump” movement, let’s not forget the discrediting fact that, while Trump may be more flagrant and harsh in his press criticism, President Barack Obama’s press policies were perhaps worse than anyother president in history. I know it’s more hip on the coasts to dump on Trump than it was to dump on Obama, but let’s not forget that exactly ZERO news organizations threatened to boycott the White House Correspondents when, say, the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. I digress…)
There are a lot of things to criticize the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for — the red carpet, the cozy nature of it, the self-celebration, the image it projects to the rest of the country, etc. — but were the dinner to shut down entirely, that would rob the evening of it’s one redeeming feature: It is the best opportunity all year for White House correspondents — and those who support them — to educate the American public on journalism access issues, to raise money for journalism endeavors and to hold to account the president of the United States — on live television! — for his record on press access.
(Mind you: The Association never actually does any of these things, but the opportunity exists nonetheless.)
Instead of turning your backs on this dinner, why not use the spotlight generated by this dinner —and the presence of the president — for good? Don’t boycott the dinner — GO to the dinner, and CHEER and APPLAUD when any of the following things happen, which they should (although — if the Association’s track record is any indication — they almost certainly will not):
- The Association’s president takes 10 minutes after the comedian’s remarks and before the president’s (i.e. when the most amount of eyeballs are tuned into the program) to offer a detailed list of the president’s most egregious press policies.
- Find a way to convey to the American public that these aren’t just a list of complaints by lazy, whiny, privileged reporters, but are, instead, an accounting of abuses of power, rejections of democracy, assaults on free-flowing information and disdains for the American people. In other words: Here is why you, the average American watching at home, should really, really care about this stuff.
- The Association announces that, in order to attend the dinner from here on out, you have to actually be an employee of a news organization (sorry advertisers, lobbyists, government officials and celebrities).
- The Association then asks the president if he might answer a few direct questions about those specific press policies before he delivers his comedy routine. The dinner is about White House journalism, after all…is it not? The president may refuse, but let him show his timidity with millions of people watching around the world.
- The Association’s president asks attendees at the dinner to please fill out the donation cards already placed atop each dinner plate and contribute at least $50 to any of the organizations listed: Society of Professional Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the International Center for Journalists, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Sunlight Foundation. (I won’t actually endorse individuals donating to the Association itself, ironically, because, as the watchdog group Charity Navigator has pointed out, the Association’s finances and institutional policies are completely out of whack and most of your money goes to either pay for the CEO’s salary or the dinner itself.)
- The Association directs those watching at home to a simple URL — say, helpjournalism.com (actually still available!) — which provides visitors with a one-click way to purchase a subscription to their journalism outlet of choice.
Those are some ideas. I’m sure there can be plenty more ways to turn the lemons of this night into lemonade.
Oh, and one last thought. There is one boycott I am 100 percent in favor of: The parties.
If you want to make a stand this April, don’t boycott the dinner and try to get it shut down; instead, try to get the nearly two dozen parties and events around the dinner to shut down and to, in their place, donate the millions of dollars spent on party planning and hosting towards the organizations noted above. That would truly support the kind of objectives sought by the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Beau Willimon and others.
Of course, these parties will never do that. How do I know? Because I’ve already asked them: