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Correspondents’ dinner harmful to journalism

Mr. Dooley, the wise and witty saloon keeper created by the Chicago columnist Peter Finley Dunne, advised the gentlemen of the press a century ago that it was their duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

He said nothing about hiring a comedian to do it for them.

Mr. Dooley did his comforting and afflicting on the pages of the long gone Chicago Journal with timeless observations like “the Supreme Court follows the election returns” and “politics ain’t beanbag,” along with his advice to “trust everybody but cut the cards.”

He will be remembered long after the malicious musings and even the names of the more recent entertainers at the annual White House Correspondents Dinners are mercifully forgotten.  

Now that the recorders of the first drafts of history have had a few weeks to reconsider the damage they do to the profession every spring, it’s time to make some permanent changes. It wouldn’t be the first time the White House press changed dinner formats.

The dinner began in 1921 as an annual celebration by and for those gentlemen of the press. The gentle ladies weren’t admitted until 1962 when President Kennedy let it be known he wouldn’t be attending unless the women who covered his weekly news conferences were also allowed to dine. Kennedy was one of 15 presidents who have been in attendance since Calvin Coolidge showed up. Donald Trump is the only one who hasn’t but he still has time.

Over the years, the correspondents have been entertained by most of the greatest show business luminaries. At the 1945 dinner, the performers included Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Danny Kaye and Fanny Brice. It became a celebrity-loaded event a couple of decades ago when its roasts of presidents and other pols went from funny to nasty.

The dinner is sometimes confused with the equally offensive Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner that is held at the same hotel, the Washington Hilton, with the same participants, except for print journalists. It goes back to 1939 BT, before television, when the haughty print types didn’t allow women or electronic journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid to dine with them. When the dinners’ histories are recalled, writers often confuse one with the other.  

The meanest performance at these dinners was probably radio personality Don Imus’ jokes about President Clinton’s infidelities in 1996 while Bill and Hillary sat at the head table. That was at the Radio and TV dinner and resulted in the first written apology, the first walk out by White House staffers and the first, unsuccessful attempt to get C-Span to censor the broadcast.

The trouble began in the 1980s when a reporter brought Fawn Hall, the scandal-plagued secretary in the Iran-Contra Affair and followed it up the following year with presidential candidate Gary Hart’s girlfriend, Donna Rice.  The attention these half-baked celebrities received attracted more stars and pseudo stars every year. By the century’s turn, the dinners turned into savage roastings of sitting presidents, a practice that culminated with this year’s fiasco.

The dinners are ostensibly celebrations of the First Amendment, an occasion to honor journalistic achievement and raise money for scholarships “aimed at encouraging new generations of journalists.”

In reality, the event raises relatively modest sums for scholarships, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, which did the numbers — and a number — on the dinner, which raised $108,000 for scholarships and twice that much for the organization’s expenses.

But all of these causes are overshadowed by the comedy routines and the accompanying glitz and glitter. For several years, they were actually funny. Presidents have fought back by making self-deprecating speeches that were often funnier than the professionals. But self-deprecation isn’t a quality the Lord provided the current White House occupant and he has wisely had other plans for the past two dinners.

Unfortunately, businessman/celebrity Donald Trump did attend one dinner — in 2010 — when he became the highly appropriate target of both the president, Barack Obama, and the host, Seth Meyers, over his vicious lies about the birthplace of the president.

Trump was there as — get this — a guest of The Washington Post when President Obama mocked his birther crusade by “releasing my official birth video,” and showing the opening of “The Lion King.”

Meyers acknowledged Trump’s interest in running for president:  “Trump said he’s running as a Republican. I just assumed he was running as a joke.” 

It is said that Trump, described as sitting “stone-faced,” decided then and there that he would indeed run for president.

These dinners have a lot to answer for.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.