'Times' Opts Out of Correspondents' Dinner
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of the perks for Washington journalists is the White House Correspondents' Dinner, the yearly party which the press hosts and roasts members of the administration. You can find plenty of political celebrities and pundits there, but you will not find, from now on, correspondents from The New York Times.
NPR's Kim Masters reports.
KIM MASTERS: The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner features about 250 tables filled with reporters, administration officials and celebrity guests. But Times' editor Bill Keller issued a statement saying that while journalists can attend parties with public figures and still write tough stories about them, such events create a false perception that reporters and their sources are pals, and that perception clouds our credibility.
The Times' decision was first revealed by columnist Frank Rich on Sunday. He argues that the televised event makes reporters into human props helping to advance the administration's agenda. This year, he says, President Bush said he wouldn't make the usual comedic speech out of respect for the victims in the Virginia Tech shootings. To Rich, that seemed like a dodge.
Mr. FRANK RICH (Columnist, The New York Times): So the Iraq war became the elephant in the room and the press looked like stooges in my view, just sitting there and clapping and lending what credibility they have to a completely disingenuous appearance by the president of the United States.
MASTERS: Rich is not arguing that the dinners actually shape media coverage of the White House, but they do underscore the press corps' repeated failure to challenge the administration.
Mr. RICH: These dinners have become propaganda events for a White House that has really staked almost its entire politics on creating propaganda events, whether it be uranium from Africa or mission accomplished.
MASTERS: Ken Herman is White House correspondent for the Cox newspaper chain and a member of the board of the White House Correspondents Association. He says reporters having occasional social contact with people they cover can be seen as the tool of the trade.
Mr. KEN HERMAN (Board Member, White House Correspondents Association): There are different ways people gather news in Washington. I know there is a perception problem about our relationship with the people we cover. I can assure people, at least in my case, this is about the one night a year I do anything like this.
MASTERS: Many others agree that the dinners are harmless. Greg Mitchell is the editor of the media trade publication Editor and Publisher, which has found no other newspaper that says it will follow The Times out the door. But Mitchell shares Frank Rich's dim view of the dinner. He says it's revealing that comedian Stephen Colbert's routine at last year's dinner was derided by the Washington press.
Colbert was perceived as rude for lambasting the president as he sat at the dais. But the routine was widely circulated on the Internet and Mitchell thinks maybe Washington reporters found it unfunny when Colbert also turned his sights on them.
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.
MASTERS: This year, the dinner featured far tamer impressions from Rich Little.
Mr. RICH LITTLE (Comedian): I'm going to do six presidents for you right now, six presidents. Starting of with one of my favorites, I love the man, I got know him, Ronald Reagan first.
MASTERS: To Greg Mitchell, this year's entertainment only underscored the problem.
Mr. GREG MITCHELL (Editor, Editor and Publisher): It's really embarrassing that they reacted to the Colbert routine by coming up with a Rich Little, and they brought on themselves this ridicule that they've received in the days since.
MASTERS: For the record, National Public Radio took four tables at the dinner this year and says it will evaluate its plans for next year closer to the event.
Kim Masters, NPR News.