By: Joe Strupp
The New York Times’ decision to no longer participate in the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, first revealed by Frank Rich in his Sunday column, drew support from other Times staffers, but some disagreement from WHCA officials.
New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirmed Monday that the newspaper had decided not to participate in the event, but gave no reason for the decision. She said the paper also would not attend future Gridiron Club dinners, while some sources at the paper said the policy could extend to other similar events.
“That is what the decision was,” Mathis said, declining to elaborate. “I don’t want to go beyond that.”
Criticism of journalists hobnobbing with top officials — accompanied by sometimes insensitive jokes or skits — has grown recently.
Andrew Rosenthal, Times editorial page editor and a former Washington editor for the paper, said he had no involvement in the decision. But he recalled past discussions in the Washington bureau during his time there about possibly pulling out. “I felt at the time that participating in them was an increasingly bad idea,” Rosenthal said. “They became about celebrities and reporters and government officials pretending they were friends. There was some resistance at the time on the part of reporters who felt they were useful.”
Rosenthal said attending the dinners is not the worst thing D.C. staffers can do, but “it becomes more and more of a problem because it has become more public.”
Executive Editor Bill Keller and Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet did not immediately return calls for comment.
WHCA President Steve Scully noted that the Times had skipped at least one dinner in the past for similar reasons, during the Clinton administration. He again defended the event, but said he would respect anyone’s decision not to attend. “I am told it will not affect their participation in the associaton,” he said, noting that Times photographer Doug Mills is on the nine-person WHCA board. “Everyone has to look at it through their own perspective.”
The decision comes just a week after this year’s dinner, which most in attendance agreed was not among the most memorable. Noting the Virginia Tech massacre just days before, President Bush declined the usual humorous address, while entertainer Rich Little, sticking to dated material and poor preparation, drew many complaints.
Ann Compton, incoming WHCA president, said she had not seen Rich’s column, but said the Times would not be missed at the dinner. “The New York Times has never been a major player in there, they only buy two tables,” Compton said of the event, which usually includes some 250 tables with 10 people each. “We had checks in hand that we had to return that would have filled 42 more tables. I hope they will still be members of the association.”
Ron Hutcheson, a former WHCA president and current McClatchy White House correspondent, defended the dinner, saying accusations of conflict are largely unfounded. “It is driven by a misperception, largely in the blogosphere, that because we are civil to each other, we forget what our role is, which is ridiculous,” Hutcheson said. “Especially in these times, we need civility. The whole reason you get a guest like Karl Rove is to get what you can from Karl Rove.”
But Rich, who said in his column that the dinner “illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media….,” defended his views again Monday. “I don’t feel that reporters should be used in presidential publicity stunts,” he told E&P. “This is used by the president of the United States as a political event.”
Rich said he had planned mid-week to write his column as part tribute to the late David Halberstam and partly to criticize the dinner, but added in the Times’ decision after hearing about it from Rosenthal. He said he sent Rosenthal and others in charge of the editorial pages a note on Wednesday about his column, as he usually does, and later found out from Rosenthal about the policy change. “I put that in, but it did not change the [focus of the] column,” he said.
Rich, who has criticized the dinner in the past, said he had played no part in the policy change and had never lobbied editors to stay away from the dinner. “I did not lobby anyone, but I agree with it,” he said. “I feel strongly that the Times has to stay clear of things that are potential conflicts of interest.”
So far, no other news outlets appear to be making similar decisions. Doyle McManus, D.C. bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, said his staffers are free to go, calling such dinners “largely useless and largely harmless….There is a valid concern about coziness in Washington, but the test of coziness is in the coverage,” he added. “I have seen no evidence that these rather dreadful events are affecting coverage.”
E&P was one of the few to note before the dinner the potential conflicts of some guests, including embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, brought by USA Today, and Karl Rove as the guest of The Times. When asked about the paper’s unusual guest, Columnist Maureen Dowd quickly pleaded innocence, saying during the dinner, “I don’t do the inviting anymore.”
Times Staffer Jim Rutenberg, also at the table, defended the choice of Rove that night, saying “We cover him, I just asked him.” He then joked, “he is telling us everything.”