When The Watchdogs Wear Tuxedos, Politicians Rest Easy

Media, politicians and celebrities mingled at the White House Correspondents Dinner — but Bob Garfield of On the Media stayed outside looking in. He says the WHCD is odd and ethically questionable.

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And I'm Melissa Block. There was no shortage of coverage last weekend of the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The president's best punchlines got plenty of play, as did pictures of the glitterati - cabinet secretaries mingling with TV stars and quarterbacks in black tie and gowns. The dinner is held in a cavernous ballroom at the Washington Hilton. Thousands of guests, including some from NPR. Here's who you did not see in a tuxedo: Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC's On the Media, was there to explore the intersection of media and official Washington. He was very much on the outside looking in, which he believes is exactly the way it's supposed to be.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These days, the House Republicans actually give John Boehner a harder time than they give me, which means orange really is the new black.

(LAUGHTER)

BOB GARFIELD, BYLINE: That was Barack Obama, 10 minutes into his monologue ridiculing the perma-tan of his political nemesis. It was an almost perfect joke, just like the White House Correspondents Dinner itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

GARFIELD: Everything you need to know about the Correspondents Dinner is that there is a red carpet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bob. Bob.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

GARFIELD: That hollering is the working press, cordoned behind retractable belt barriers, here vying for the attention of - I swear to God - Greta van Susteren. Oh, yeah. I was penned in there, too - you know, journalizing, just like my colleagues. Hi, I'm Bob Garfield from On the Media. What story are you chasing tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, we're just talking to celebs. Seeing why they're here, just chatting.

GARFIELD: Are you a news organization?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm with USA Today.

GARFIELD: What are you here after today?

Fun moments on the red carpet, trying to mix the fun of the politicians with the crazy of the celebrities.

Who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm with ABC.

GARFIELD: On the Media is hosting a media ethics colloquy at seven tonight. You guys interested?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, right now, I'm zipping back. I'm only here for part-time. I'm handing this off, so.

GARFIELD: More on the media ethics thing in a minute. But I will say that the red carpet delivered these folks their stars. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux chatted up "Scandal's" Scott Foley.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX: And it is so incredible because nobody thought that a White House administration could be that scandalous or that sexy.

SCOTT FOLEY: Well, it's scandalous or sexy - thank you.

GARFIELD: Someone snagged one of the "Duck Dynasty" guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm (unintelligible) moving around. I'm staring at everybody around me.

GARFIELD: And check out Uzo Adubo of "Orange is the New Black."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Is there anyone here that you're trying to, like, casually stand next to and talk to?

UZO ADUBA: I'm trying to casually stand next to Kevin Hart. I also would like to very casually and/or aggressively be next to Wolf Blitzer from CNN.

GARFIELD: I know, right? You look lovely as always, Wolf. Who are you wearing?

WOLF BLITZER: Armani.

GARFIELD: Well done. What story are you chasing tonight?

BLITZER: I'm not chasing anything. We're here to have fun.

GARFIELD: Correct. CNN hosted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a White House special assistant and a couple of members of Congress. CBS had HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The Washington Post had Transportation's Anthony Foxx. NPR had Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Yahoo News had Attorney General Eric Holder. ABC had Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose department routinely ignores press questions about detaining and abusing American citizens at the border and lethal force against unarmed suspects. But Johnson and the others sat there in their tuxedos, offering nothing more to their news organization hosts than the basket of dinner rolls, in no jeopardy whatsoever of journalism breaking out. In the week leading up to the event, I asked Steve Thomma, president of the Correspondents Association, about the propriety of cozying up to the very officials his membership is supposed to be watchdogging.

STEVE THOMMA: Every reporter in this town who covers a beat, we all take people out to lunch or dinner. Either 'cause we're already talking to them every day or we're hoping they'll return our calls and talk every day. And I just don't have a problem with it. It's up to every journalist what they do with their source. We're just not going to get involved in that relationship.

GARFIELD: Abusive though it may be. This is an administration that has systematically stiffed the press corps for six years. Access is so bad the press usually can't even take photos at photo-ops. Saturday's dinner, putting reporters face to face with Obama for five solid hours, was by far their longest presidential encounter of the year. Yet, of course, not one question about Ukraine, immigration, the Keystone XL Pipeline, the budget, the NSA, the climate, the Mideast peace process or anything else. As for everyday opportunities to see the president, Thomma assured me that objections of the Correspondents Association and its allies have been duly registered at the White House.

THOMMA: And we believe we have made some progress, particularly for the cameras, for photojournalists. We think that we're getting them in more often than we used to.

GARFIELD: A lot of progress?

THOMMA: Some progress.

GARFIELD: Significant progress?

THOMMA: We'll get to significant progress.

GARFIELD: In the Hilton Grand Ballroom, the sound of shoulders rubbing. Up on the second floor was the sound of crickets chirping.

MARK LEIBOVICH: This thing has been a complete flop.

GARFIELD: As dinner convened downstairs, On the Media did indeed host an ethics colloquy that we named "Red Carpets and Red Flags," featuring American University journalism professor Patricia Aufderheide, Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News, Mark Liebovich of the New York Times Magazine and me. Refreshments were served - to us, because nobody else showed up.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: So, you think people are going to come? Where did you put the poster?

LEIBOVICH: I mean, it's a little demoralizing.

GARFIELD: I think we can call it. I just, its 7:25.

PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: It's been great, guys.

GARFIELD: Yeah, you want to take some doughnuts with you? I actually took most of the snacks back with me. Although, truth be told, by the end of the evening, I'd pretty much lost my appetite. From somewhere now outside the Beltway, I'm Bob Garfield.

BLOCK: Bob Garfield is co-host of WNYC's On the Media. His special, Mr. Garfield Goes to Washington, airs this coming weekend on public radio stations.

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