A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
In DC it is simply known as “the dinner:” The White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner, taking place this Saturday for the first time since 2019, due to the world’s pandemic pause. It is an excuse for five days of awards and parties and celebrity selfies and, for media reporters like yours truly, source meetings.
Fellow media reporter Oliver Darcy attended the Bytes and Bylines event Thursday, hosted by Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, where hundreds of journalists and politicos mingled over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and here’s what he noticed: “The most common topic of conversation seemed to be how attendees hadn’t seen each other in years.”
In other words, it’s about reconnecting more than mere networking. “Despite a contagious variant that spread through an event earlier this month, the Gridiron Club dinner, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ positive test earlier this week, the show is going on,” Deadline’s Ted Johnson wrote, “with most events requiring proof of a negative test and vaccination.”
I know that black tie Washington oozes self-importance, and the dinner always gets too much media attention, but everyone can relate to the “reconnecting” feeling in their own lives, be it at school or church or work or Walmart or Wegmans.
“Mutual respect for the First Amendment”
As for the lingering Covid-19 cloud, this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association president Steven Portnoy told me that “we’re optimistic that we’ll do what we can… to avoid spread.” My sense is that some attendees are skittish about the shared air while others seem carefree.
As much as A-lister sightings and overstuffed open bars have come to define the dinner weekend, Portnoy wants to draw attention back to the original purpose of the 101-year-old event. “Presidents have been attending since 1924, with only one exception, to demonstrate mutual respect for the First Amendment,” he said, “and that’s what I’m focused on.” His comment is a reminder that President Biden’s planned attendance restores a tradition that Donald Trump happily let lapse.
Portnoy said his remarks will be about “the essential role that journalists play in American life helping this country govern itself.” And there will be awards — including, Variety notes, “a new lifetime achievement award named for Alice Dunigan and Ethel Payne, the first two Black women in the White House press corps, who pressed President Eisenhower about his administration’s stance on civil rights and segregation. Gayle King is expected to present the prize, and the two journalists’ families should be in attendance…”
The Freedom Forum held its Free Expression Awards on Thursday night, hosted by Jonathan Capehart, with featured entertainer Jordan Klepper. On Friday there are too many events to list, including gatherings held by NBC, Semafor and Funny or Die, and big parties hosted by talent agencies CAA and UTA.
On Saturday there are brunches and numerous pre-dinner receptions, then the main event featuring remarks by Biden and a roast by Trevor Noah, and big post-dinner bashes held by Paramount and NBCUniversal. (CNN will feature special TV coverage of the dinner festivities beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern.)
On Sunday there are brunches hosted by CNN and the Allbrittons. Axios and Deadline have compiled full lists, but the takeaway is this, according to party planners: Attendees have at least two years’ worth of pent-up energy.
“Ironically, the tighter caps on attendance in the name of pandemic safety have increased the amount of jockeying for access,” Politico Magazine reported.
“Out of control?”
That is what one veteran DC correspondent anonymously told The Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts about the actual dinner portion of the weekend. “It’s simply gotten too big,” the person said. “The noise level is ridiculous; the only time the roar abates is when POTUS and the entertainer are speaking.” The correspondent also pointed to another problem: “Hundreds of guests who have absolutely nothing to do with journalism, much less White House correspondents.”
More tables translates to more money for awards and scholarships, but the point is well taken.
– Portnoy talked to Variety about bringing on “veteran Hollywood awards show producer” Bob Bain to produce the dinner program: “We are hoping he can elevate this event to a level we haven’t had it at before.”
– How will Biden navigate Covid anxiety and war concerns while trying to be funny in his Saturday evening speech? CNN’s Kevin Liptak has a preview.
– Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski went down memory lane to find old jokes from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton “that Joe Biden could recycle” at the dinner.
– Among the awards being presented at Saturday’s dinner for the first time is the University of Florida’s $25,000 Collier Prize. The Miami Herald and ProPublica are receiving the prize for their “five-part series on a Florida government program that failed to aid families of children who suffered catastrophic brain injuries at birth.”
– And here are the WHCA’s award winners, including journalists from the AP, AFP, ABC News, and Axios.