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HARPER: Correspondents’ dinner comforts the comfortable

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite persistent criticism, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. The event underscores what's wrong with much of Washington journalism. The reporters cozy up to politicians, and both groups want to be part of the Hollywood set.

If the event were a government program, most Washington reporters would have been howling to shut it down.

I attended one dinner many years ago and swore I would never go again. It was bad back then, but it's gotten so much worse. I applaud The New York Times' decision not to attend the black-tie affair because it has become a celebrity-driven event and sends the wrong message to the American public.

So here's what is planned for this year. Comedian Conan O'Brien will host the show. E! Entertainment network will stream the dinner's red carpet live. President Obama and the first lady plan to attend.

But it doesn't end there. The Hollywood website, deadline.com, reported that CNN will have Elizabeth Banks of "The Hunger Games" and her husband, Pitch Perfect producer Max Handelman.

ABC News journalists will dine with Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara of "Modern Family" as well as Nashville's Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere. The Huffington Post has singer Jon Bon Jovi.

Longtime "Friends" star Matthew Perry will settle in at the NBC News table. Bloomberg has "House of Cards" stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

Steven Spielberg will join Time along with DreamWorks executive and huge Obama donor Jeffrey Katzenberg.

USA Today even touted its list of television and movie stars online.

The Washington Times will be there, Executive Editor David Jackson told me, having invited mostly political types. But he allowed that a couple of well-known nonpolitical Washington figures have committed to the gig.

The event, which is meant to raise money for scholarships and to recognize journalistic accomplishments, has drifted from its original mission when the association was founded in 1914. According to the association's website, the organization held its first dinner in 1920. Calvin Coolidge became the first of 14 presidents to attend the affair. See whca.net/history.

I learned my craft in Chicago and spent only two years in Washington for Newsweek. I left for the Middle East in part because of the coziness I saw between reporters and politicians.

In Chicago, author and journalist Peter Finley Dunne created a lasting reminder of what reporters were supposed to do. During the early 20th century, Dunne wrote a column, called "Mr. Dooley," in which the fictional Irish immigrant offered his advice in dialect from his barstool warning people about the growing power of newspapers. Here is what he said:

"The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward."

The most-quoted line is "The newspaper comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable." That's a standard I have applied throughout my career since journalism is one of the few crafts protected by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The White House Correspondents' Association may try to justify the dinner for its ability to raise money for scholarships, but isn't it possible to get the $100,000 another way? Simply put, it's time for the association to dump this dinner because it does send the wrong message to readers and viewers who rightly see the event as comforting the comfortable.

Representatives for the association were unavailable for comment.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com.

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