About News

D.C. Dinner of Journos, Pols and Celebs Was Black Tie and a Black Eye

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

The news media that cover the White House have a really great plan for combating the common public perception that they are elitist and out of touch with the rest of the world.

They hosted a black-tie dinner in Washington to schmooze and hobnob with government leaders and politicians. Really.

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returned Saturday night after a two-year absence because of the pandemic. The gala event featuring Beltway journalists, leading political figures and celebrities presents such a terrible picture.

The message to media consumers (and haters) says this: The D.C. press and politicians are quite cozy, actually, and what we see 364 days a year is just a game they play to fulfill prescribed roles and maintain access. It makes one wonder if the independent and sometimes adversarial relationship that’s needed to produce accountability journalism truly exists in untempered form.

The event, which began in 1921, does good in raising money for journalism scholarships and calling attention to various threats to journalists and the First Amendment. But they don’t need to invite the people they cover to make that happen.

Issues with the White House press corps may run deeper than this event. Politico published an article on Friday quoting anonymous White House reporters saying they’re bored with the Biden Administration and long for the newsmaking chaos and leaks of the Trump Administration. And that their beat is no longer the big career boost it once was.

Not exactly the frame of mind we need from the watchdogs of the executive branch.

White House journalists seem obsessed with their status. The dinner shows that, as do their frequent complaints when presidents don’t hold enough formal press conferences. I think that gripe stems less from an inability to get answers – because press secretaries can give answers – and more from wanting a president to validate the press’ importance. (And for some, to be seen on TV asking a tough question of the president of the United States.)

Certainly, presidents ought to have to answer questions, but who cares if it’s at a press conference or while walking somewhere. There’s a lot of journalistic talent in the briefing room. I’ve always thought that instead of the horde, a couple of pool reporters could adequately handle a presidential press conference while all the other journalists should go talk to sources, dig into records or visit communities affected by government actions. Because that’s how better journalism happens.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.