A response to the WHCA

April, 14th 2015 Blog

Monday morning, the White House Correspondents’ Association put out the following email — not directed at my movie (www.nerdpromthemovie.com) in name, but I have to guess, in spirit. I have pasted it in full below.

WHCA President Christi Parsons and I were supposed to appear together Monday morning on MSNBC.com’s “Reporter’s Notebook” to discuss the below (I imagine), but she was taken away by professional responsibilities at the last minute, so I thought I’d respond here. I should note that both Parsons and last year’s WHCA president, Steve Thomma, have been incredibly courteous and kind in the wake of the film’s release and I was grateful that both of them took the time to watch it at the E Street premiere on Thursday. They have their quibbles, for sure, but we’ve been able to talk about them with great respect and I appreciate that.

The reality is that, on most issues, the WHCA and I are in full agreement: I support — and note in the film — their good work on behalf of access and end the film with an extensive tribute to the importance of White House correspondents. Lots of White House reporters have expressed to me their gratitude for that in the wake of last week’s release.

However, a few WHCA board members — either current or present (and their lawyer, even) — have expressed their objection to a part of the film in which I point out the discrepancy between the salary of the Association’s executive director and the Association’s total scholarship contributions. (Almost the entirety of the email below focuses on the dinner’s expenses, as compared to the scholarship/executive director compensation issue I raise above and in the film. To me, it’s a bit of an odd focus since I don’t take issue with how the dinner spends its money in the film.)

My primary critique is very simple: The Association spends more on its executive director than it does on its scholarship programs. I find that ratio to be troubling. So, too, does the nation’s top charity analyst, Charity Navigators, whose CEO I interviewed for the film.

In the film, I note this ratio: The Executive Director’s salary is $141,000 and total grants were $131,000 (2012 Form 990).

That discrepancy is actually getting worse. In the latest Form 990 (2013), the total grants actually dropped to $86,550 while executive director compensation was $133,000.

I believe that ratio is a bad one and that the scholarship program should be more robust. I don’t think suggesting that the WHCA should do more to bolster that program, as I do in the film, is some ghastly attack (the WHCA’s lawyer said I was “impugning” their executive director). If WHCA members don’t agree with that, I have to respect their opinion. But I don’t have to agree with it. I simply have a different perspective. I’m fine with the executive director’s salary being what it is — more, even, if it is merited. I just think the scholarship program should be *at least* double that, especially since, as the Association itself notes in the short video it put together with the History Channel, “The first and foremost mission of the Correspondents’ Association Dinner is to promote journalism education through the scholarship fund.”

To put it in terms that I think political reporters and observers would understand: The optics of it look really, really bad. And the substance does, too.

On a side note — lest this become a Patrick v. WHCA distraction — I should add that, if the movie lays blame anywhere, it lays blame at Washington writ large and the people (and there are a lot of them) who continue to give this week the kind of prominence that it has, the people who continue to make a somewhat shameless week our Super Bowl. My larger objection is with the stature it has more than the actual event itself.

-Patrick Gavin


Dear WHCA members,

The White House Correspondents’ Association will host its annual dinner on Saturday, April 25 and once again we expect a sellout crowd of more than 2,600 guests. Each year, we receive many more requests for tickets than the Hilton ballroom can accommodate. Professional marketers might suggest we raise the ticket price, but we have held the line again this year, determined to keep the event affordable for our members and their employers.

As reporters, we understand that a high-profile event like ours attracts considerable attention, and we want to be transparent for those who wish to “follow the money.” A summary of finances for the last two years’ dinners is shown below, and we’ll be happy to provide a similar breakdown of this year’s dinner once the books are closed. Additional information is available through our 990 tax form, filed with the IRS.

In broad strokes, ticket sales from the dinner bring in somewhere around three-quarters of a million dollars. We spend a little more than half of that on the food and entertainment and a bit less than 10 percent on other expenses, including a portion of our lone staff person’s salary.

After those bills are paid, over the past couple of years we have cleared about $250,000 to $280,000 from ticket sales.

Of that, we award something around $100,000 in scholarships to aspiring college journalists. Scholarship awards have increased more than tenfold in recent years, and the board is very proud of that. We regularly explore other ways to make meaningful contributions to support aspiring young journalists. To that end, we have created an endowment fund to protect our ability to continue funding scholarships at a high level in the future.

We also use proceeds from the dinner to fund other activities during the year, such as panel discussions on press access and White House coverage, as well as professional development for journalists on the beat.

We’re grateful for the opportunity the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner provides to shine a spotlight on the work that today’s journalists, and tomorrow’s journalists, do.

However, we are not responsible for all the bright lights that shine in Washington that weekend. Many of our members’ news organizations — and for that matter, many unaffiliated groups — organize parties and in some cases generate money from the numerous side events that have sprung up around the WHCA dinner. The Association does not sponsor, endorse or control any of those other events.

In fact, while we’ve often been invited to lend our name to commercial events in exchange for a share of the proceeds, we have scrupulously avoided doing so for fear of losing sight of our true mission.

We promote openness and transparency at the White House for the press and public. Period, full stop. The scholarships, the awards, the professional development work we do — all is in support of that effort.

This weekend, for example, your WHCA board and its volunteers were fighting for press access on the president’s trip to Panama, building a pool system for budding presidential campaigns and reviewing committee recommendations for our forthcoming Practices and Principles document guiding press access at the White House.

That’s where we will keep our focus as we look forward to the camaraderie and celebration of this year’s dinner. We know that you, the working members of the White House press corps, join us in doing the same.

Let us know if you have questions.

–Your WHCA Board

Christi Parsons
Carol Lee
Jeff Mason
Major Garrett
Olivier Knox
Margaret Talev
Scott Horsley
Todd Gillman
Doug Mills



MAY 3, 2014 FINAL



Dinner deposits $1,023,300.00
Refunds $241,800.00
Returned checks, never deposited $75,600.00
Total Income $781,500.00


Hotel $411,200.00
Sound $6,226.00
Program $7,349.00
Entertainer $10,000.00
Total Cost of Function $434,775.00

Awards $849.00
Florist $3,000.00
Photographer and expenses $1,000.00
Pipe & Drape $14,238.00
Postage (invitations) $181.00
Printing (tickets & cards) $1,920.00
Salaries $40,757.00
Security $2,480.00
Total operating expenses $64, 425.00





APRIL 27, 2013 FINAL



Dinner deposits $978,175.00
Refunds $239,800.00
Returned checks, never deposited $37,400.00
Total Income $738,375.00


Hotel $389,898.00
Sound $6,544.00
Program $5,997.00
Entertainer expenses $4,570.00
Entertainer $10,000.00
Total Cost of Function $417,009.00


Awards $773.00
Florist $2,915.00
Photographer and expenses $1,000.00
Pipe & Drape $12,709.00
Postage (invitations) $178.00
Printing (tickets & cards) $1,914.00
Salaries $40,623.00
Security $2,520.00
Total operating expenses $62,632.00


This financial report was prepared by the WHCA staff and reviewed and summarized by Scott Horsley of NPR, our board secretary and resident MBA.