White House Correspondents' Dinner: Like Flies to Honey
In a little-known Aesop’s fable, a number of flies are attracted to a jar of honey that is overturned in a housekeeper’s room. Placing their feet in the spilled honey, they eat greedily, happily gorging themselves. Their feet, however, become so smeared with the honey that they cannot use their wings, nor release themselves … and they slowly suffocate.
It was this fable that came to mind as I watched the garish coverage of the White House Correspondents’ dinner a few weeks ago pop up on entertainment shows, newspapers, blogs and social media sites. As an annual event, Hollywood celebrities flood to the nation’s capital for a three-day period of pre-dinner receptions and post-dinner parties at mansions in Georgetown, hotels or museums downtown and embassies around Massachusetts Avenue that are often more lavish than the dinner itself. Journalists, politicos and celebrities flock to each party and each reception … like flies to honey.
As star-struck reporters trip over themselves to gain often lop-sided, fuzzy iPhone photos with Kim Kardashian, George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon and Uggie the Dog to post on their Facebook pages, all journalistic pretense is gone for those three days or more, surrounding the last Saturday in April. It’s become known, euphemistically, as the “Nerd Prom.” Begun in 1920, the ostensible purpose of the dinner is to “acknowledge award-winners, present scholarships and give the press and president an evening of friendly appreciation.” To outside observers (we, the uninvited masses), however, the White House Correspondents Association dinner is anything but. Instead, the event has become the most obvious symbol of a mainstream media that has abdicated its responsibility to the people, for a chance to preen and rub elbows with Hollywood and political elites.
The criticisms of the dinner as spectacle of sorts are not new. After the 2007 dinner, then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich characterized the event as “a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era…[because it] illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows.” A few Sundays ago, Tom Brokaw appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and remarked, “Look, I think George Clooney is a great guy, I’d like to meet Charlize Theron, but I don’t think the big press event in Washington should be that kind of glittering event, where the whole talk is Cristal champagne … who had the best party, who got to meet the most people.” Brokaw went on to say, “That’s another separation between what we’re supposed to be doing and what the people expect us to be doing, and I think that the Washington press corps has to look at that … It’s gone beyond what it used to be.”
After the festivities, we’re expected to believe that the press and White House will go back to their business-as-usual adversarial relationship, like Ralph E. Wolfs and Sam Sheepdogs, punching their time clock in the famous Looney Tunes cartoon.
Don’t get me wrong: the same issue exists with the White House’s official state dinners, where Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg are provided open access to the White House’s compound along with media figures like Katie Couric, PBS’s Charlie Rose, Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. As the nation’s gentry gather, many members of the press have proven more than willing to assimilate themselves into exclusive affairs without regard to perceptions from the outside world. During his tenure, WHCA President Steve Scully countered the critics by saying, “An evening of civility does not mean we are selling out … [and] if people want to criticize the dinner, then don’t come.” Scully, of course, had little to be concerned about. The rest of us—the uninvited “everyman”—never do.
So, Aesop’s story about the flies and the honey jar represents a cautionary tale for the press and for all of us. The fable itself concludes, as the flies are expiring from their foolish escapade, with their collective lament: “O, foolish creatures that we are, for the sake of a little pleasure we have destroyed ourselves.”