By Ted Johnson
This week a new podcast and video was launched called Washington Insider, billed as featuring content on “how money, power and celebrity drive politics and power in America’s capital city.”
It’s no coincidence that the launch of the site — from producers Tammy Haddad, Simon Marks and Julianne Donofrio — comes the same week as the annual White House Correspondents Assn. dinner.
The surreal mixing of policy wonks with celebrities (from the A-list famous to the reality star notorious) has defined the event for years, but the mix of cocktail parties, Hollywood-tinged panels and lavish bashes that surround the dinner have become a showcase for media organizations and corporate branding, as well as some marketing and lobbying opportunities.
The fusion of glitz and government is a theme not just of the launch of Washington Insider, but of “Nerd Prom,” a new documentary from former Politico writer Patrick Gavin that looks at how “Washington’s wildest week,” as he calls it, came to obscure the mission of the White House Correspondents Assn., which is to ensure better access to the president. The film features celebrities who struggle even to name a White House correspondent attending the event.
The biggest night may not even be the night of the dinner but the night before, as publications like Time-People and the New Yorker host cocktail parties. Politico is hosting an event, “An Evening With John Legend,” in which the singer will perform and will participate in a panel discussion on civil rights. Google and the Atlantic are hosting a party at Constitution Gardens on the National Mall featuring a setup of various art installations. The Creative Coalition is hosting “Supper Suite,” or a “pop-up culinary and hospitality haven,” at STK to celebrate the arts.
Earlier in the day, the MPAA is hosting its annual Creativity Conference at the Newseum, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley, Microsoft’s Sidhant Gupta and “Madam Secretary” creator Barbara Hall on the bill. Also planned is a demonstration of an AeralMOB drone used on film sets, with such production granted FAA clearance last year.
On Saturday morning, the Atlantic and National Journal are hosting a forum called “Culture Shock,” on returning veterans and they way they are portrayed in the media. Among those on the panel are Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and actress Michelle Monaghan. Later in the morning is the Garden Brunch, at the Washington-Beall residence, continuing a longtime tradition that started more than two decades ago in Haddad’s yard. The event this year is raising money for charities including Dog Tag Bakery.
Meanwhile, a tradition has been for media organizations to invite a mix of sources and celebrities to the Saturday night dinner and their own pre-parties, with a heavy dose of stars from D.C.-based series including Tea Leoni of “Madam Secretary” and Michael Kelly of “House of Cards.” Others expected include Jane Fonda, Rebecca Gayheart and Eric Dane (for CNN), Larry Wilmore (for the New Yorker), Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross (ABC News) and Ava DuVernay (Thomson Reuters), but there also is an infusion of online celebrities. The Huffington Post is hosting YouTube star Grace Helbig, Vine stars Nash Grier and Marcus Johns and “Serial” host Sarah Koenig, among others.
That said, this year’s dinner may be slightly less flashy, as the novelty of seeing President Obama, scheduled to deliver jokes at his seventh dinner, has worn off a bit. Cecily Strong of “Saturday Night Live,” one of only a handful of female comics to serve as the night’s featured entertainment, promises something slightly different, more in line with her sketch comedy background. Christi Parsons, the president of the WHCA, told Washington Insider in one podcast that edgy — maybe not too edgy — seems to be what works. “If it doesn’t come close to the line or maybe slightly over it one or two steps, then it’s just not really worth hearing,” she said.
While offering some insight into how hosts are selected and put together their material, Parsons also reiterated some of the issues facing the WHCA, which has been pressing for better access to the president and White House events as the Obama administration has at times bypassed traditional media in favor of other platforms.
So how do D.C. reporters feel about the week? USA Today’s Washington correspondent Paul Singer recently weighed in on the ambivalence over the event.
“I can’t/don’t want to be in an Instagram picture with 1) any lawmaker I may investigate later; 2) anybody who might later be a secret source who will want to deny we’ve ever spoken; 3) any person showing Hollywood-style cleavage,” he wrote. “These things can damage my credibility.
“But stripping away all the social commentary about crony journalism, privileged access and swooning fandom, the correspondents’ dinner is just that — a dinner. A dinner supposedly in honor of the profession I adore and issuing awards for good work that I am glad to applaud (if only a little jealously). And the president comes and makes jokes. What’s not to like?”
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