Staff Columnist

'Nerd prom' must evolve or die - and not because of Michelle Wolf

Capitol Ideas: Spectacle of grand dinner betrays a journalist's mission

Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner needs to go the way of the typewriter.

And it’s not because of a few jokes.

There has been significant backlash to the annual event, which was held April 28 in the nation’s capital. Drawing the most ire, it seems, were the remarks given by comedian Michelle Wolf. The event typically features a comic keynote speaker, and many felt some of Wolf’s jokes, particularly a few at the expense of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, crossed the line into distasteful.

I thought the reaction to Wolf’s jokes, even about Sanders, was a bit much. They weren’t the vicious, personal attacks on Sanders’ appearance that some — including many in the national media, sadly — made them sound like.

Not to mention such criticism rings hollow from anyone who was defending Sanders but also looked the other way while Sanders’ boss, President Donald Trump, has ruthlessly disparaged countless individuals, nationalities and entire countries.

Regardless, that’s not why the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, affectionately known in journalism circles as “nerd prom,” needs to go the way of the pager.

The whole event is strange: journalists gathering for a grand dinner with the people they cover. It just feels ... wrong.

The bottom-line goals of the dinner are admirable: to recognize great work in journalism and raise money to provide scholarships to young journalists.

But the event has grown into a spectacle that betrays a journalist’s mission.

I have never attended a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, but I don’t have to be in a fancy D.C. ballroom to know it’s unnatural for reporters to spend an evening hobnobbing with the people whom they cover.

It brings to mind a traditional Iowa event that I have taken part in, and also felt strange about.

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Each year just before Christmas, the governor of Iowa hosts a reception at the governor’s mansion on Terrace Hill in Des Moines and invites staff and members of the Statehouse media. It’s a simple, quaint and cordial event. But when I attended in 2014, the first year after I started as Lee Enterprises’ capital bureau chief, the event just felt strange to me, for the same reasons I listed above.

To be clear, I don’t harbor any ill will toward former Gov. Terry Branstad or Gov. Kim Reynolds for hosting the annual event or inviting the media. It’s a kind and appreciated gesture.

It’s just that, as a reporter, it’s not an arena in which I feel comfortable, for the same reason I think the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner should face extinction. It’s not an arena in which reporters and the people they cover should interact.

It’s not that reporters need to avoid socializing with the people they cover. The media-subject relationship is not always adversarial. The list of people I enjoy talking to in this job is endless. Interviews often devolve into discussions about family, sports and movies.

But gathering together, journalists and politicians, for an evening soiree goes too far.

That’s why the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner should, at the least, take a page from Madonna and reinvent itself. Find a way to honor journalists and raise money without rubbing elbows with the politicians we cover and turning the event into a roast.

I don’t have the answer for how; smarter people than I would have to figure that out.

But I’d like to see the spectacle meet its demise.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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