- - Thursday, April 25, 2013

This weekend, “distinguished celebrity delegates” attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and related events in Washington are invited to raid a “Thank You Lounge” offering free loot from luxury jewelry, watch and perfume brands, as well as the St. Regis Bora Bora.

Yes, you read that correctly. Though denounced by the White House Correspondents’ Association, the gifting lounge is one of the many Hollywood-style happenings in honor of the annual event, which has evolved into what veteran Washington journalist Chuck Conconi calls “a poor man’s version of Oscar Night.”

Ironically, national job search website CareerCast.com just ranked “newspaper reporter” the “Worst Job of 2013” — making it more stressful than “oil rig worker” and more thankless than “meter reader.”

The public will undoubtedly disagree when they hear about those poor newspaper reporters hobnobbing with President Barack Obama and celebrities like Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, and Kevin Spacey during the official dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday and exclusive parties in the days before and after.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, began hosting the dinners in 1920 to help overworked reporters let their hair down and build stronger relationships with sources over dinner and entertainment, often comedy at the expense of politicians in attendance. (This year’s comedy headliner is late night host Conan O’Brien, who previously did the honors at the 1995 dinner.) But increasingly, even legitimate White House correspondents find tickets to the “Nerd Prom” difficult to obtain as media outlets compete to fill their tables with the most buzzworthy celebrities.

Mr. Conconi — who attended several of the dinners during his 13 years as a style and gossip columnist for the “Washington Post” and 14 years as editor-at-large at the Washingtonian magazine — noticed the shift beginning in the Reagan Administration, when in 1987 the late Michael Kelly, then a Baltimore Sun reporter, created a frenzy by bringing Oliver North’s secretary Fawn Hall, who famously confessed to shredding documents in the Iran-Contra affair. The following year, Mr. Kelly squired Donna Rice, the model who had an affair with Democratic presidential primary candidate Gary Hart.

Stuffy sources were out — and “it girls” with sex tapes and criminal records were in. Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren, for example, has recently escorted Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan to the event. 

The 2012 dinner reached a new level of absurdity, with George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Diane Keaton, Reese Witherspoon, and the stars of “Glee” and “Modern Family” among the unprecedented number of celebrities joining Miss Kardashian and Miss Lohan as guests of media outlets for the dinner and full weekend of parties. (The Washington Times boasted perhaps the most popular guest: Uggie, the four-legged star of “The Artist.”)

After the event, NBC’s Tom Brokaw announced on “Meet the Press” that it’s “time to rethink the event” and the focus on “Cristal champagne, taking over the Italian Embassy, who had the best party, who got to meet the most people.”

Responding in a radio interview, White House Correspondents’ Association President and Fox News Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry defended the dinner, which raises over $100,000 for journalism scholarships, though he agreed that “it sometimes looks too much like a celebrity fest.”

It’s unfortunate that E! News chose this year to livestream the red carpet arrivals at the Washington Hilton for the first time, because it seems the love affair is cooling. Washington journalists enjoy being the popular kids for an evening, and celebrities relish the attention. But after a while, what could they possibly talk about over their overcooked chicken?

Some politically active A-list stars who frequent the dinner, such as Mr. Clooney, Miss Theron and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, are missing this year. Though Barbara Streisand, Nicole Kidman, and “House of Cards” cast members are among those expected to attend, the media seems to have made an effort to invite more reasonable sources, ranging from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew at the Wall Street Journal table, to representatives from the National Security Council and U.S. Secret Service at the Yahoo! table, to numerous CEOs at the “Politico” table.

And Miss Lohan must not have been such a great date, because Ms. Van Susteren will not be attending the dinner this year.

Regarding that gifting lounge, Politico reported that the White House Correspondents’ Association’s lawyer sent a four-page letter to GBK PR, the Los Angeles public relations firm promoting it, threatening legal action if they continued their unauthorized use of the name of the association or dinner. (GBK PR reportedly apologized and worked with the lounge’s co-sponsor, entertainment industry advocacy group the Creative Coalition, to fix the situation.)

Will more reporters follow the lead of television journalist John McLaughlin who, after nearly 20 years of hosting the must-attend morning-after event at the Hay-Adams, removed his name from the former “McLaughlin Brunch” this year?

Though this writer is guilty of stalking the “Gossip Girl” stars at the dinner a few years ago, reporters might want to think about the image the event projects.

“Some of the media gets as excited as a teenager seeing Justin Bieber,” quipped Mr. Conconi. “It becomes, I think, embarrassing for these people.”


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