Washington Insight: Correspondents’ dinner isn’t about Lindsay Lohan

By Thomas Burr

Published: May 4, 2014 04:06PM
Updated: May 4, 2014 10:28PM
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Thomas Burr and Matt Canham

Washington •

It’s the Washington prom.

The gathering of journalists and the stars of politics and Hollywood each year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become the premier party of the nation’s capital. There’s a red carpet lined with gawkers, paparazzi surround the entrances, black town cars line up to drop off guests. There are exclusive parties before and after, and heavy security checking the guest list.

It’s also the oddest arrangement of people from extreme walks of life: the policy wonk next to the actress, the White House aide and the basketball hotshot. The president of the United States and Lindsay Lohan.

The dinner, held Saturday at the Washington Hilton, is also a lightning rod of controversy from critics who argue journalists are playing footsie with the government officials they cover, and that the celebrity one-upmanship has topped any notion that the event is about scholarships and awards and journalism.

Count Tom Brokaw among the rock throwers.

“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan,” the former NBC Nightly News anchor told Politico last year. “She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break.”

It’s true. The celebrity thing has gotten out of hand. Two years ago, Fox News invited Kim Kardashian, who became famous because of a leaked sex tape. Uggie, the dog from the movie “The Artist,” attended, too.

What started out as an annual dinner in the 1920s for the press and politicians has grown bigger and more Hollywood in recent years. You can blame the advent of video coverage of the dinner and the more star-like atmosphere that surrounds the presidency.

It’s supposed to be about White House correspondents but only some of them get to attend, with many seats going to corporate executives or movie stars. Last time I checked, Lindsay Lohan wasn’t reporting on President Barack Obama’s executive orders or the White House response to Russia’s actions against Ukraine. That’s a good thing.

But for all the negatives, there are positives as well. Beyond the hype, it’s one of those nights when journalists can drop the notebook or camera, and politicians can step away from the latest talking point and just talk. In the polarized lens that defines America these days, it’s a break from the norm, and a time where people can just be people, even if it’s in fancy gowns and black ties.

Full disclosure: Yes, I attend these, and yes, I’ve snapped photos with celebrities. I’ve also enjoyed the moments of pure candid time with presidential candidates and campaign strategists, Supreme Court justices and administration aides. It sure beats the usual “No comment.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said it best earlier this year at the Gridiron Club dinner — kind of like the correspondents’ dinner minus the celebrities. As he travels the world, Kerry said he is struck by the number of failed and failing countries, the level of violence, chaos and corruption. Most of the time, the secretary of state noted, the worst things happen in places with an absence of accountability and no free press.

“As we all know, knowledge is power — and truth [is] the great antidote to impunity,” Kerry said, after just returning from Kiev, Ukraine, where he stood on the same spot the former president unleashed snipers to pick off protesters and where Kerry saw a roadside memorial for a journalist dragged from her car and beaten within an inch of her life.

“And what we have here — the ability to come together for a night to laugh really does make America different,” Kerry said. “Your commitment to journalism has never been more important and our freedom of the press is part of the power of our example to the world.”

Of course, dressing up like a penguin and taking a selfie with a celebrity at a fancy dinner isn’t what makes journalism great. And no, it’s not going to solve the world’s problems one $300 plate at a time.

But in a town that erects barrier after barrier between the prying reporters and the decision makers, it’s nice to have times when the guard is down and the two sides can actually chat. Even if Lindsay Lohan is nearby.

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Burr reports from Washington, D.C., for The Tribune. He can be reached at tburr@sltrib.com or via Twitter @thomaswburr.