If one person can eclipse an entire evening’s worth of celebration—the military show, the scholarships, the awards, the urgent discussion of the profound necessity of press freedom—that’s a good sign that something should change about the evening. There’s the Correspondents’ Dinner as an event, and the Correspondents’ Dinner as a norm; both would benefit, at this point, from scaling back to become something smaller, more intimate, more meaningful—less about celebrity, less about comedy, and more about journalism. A smaller dinner would be more boring, definitely, but also more in line with journalism’s own best vision of itself: as a watchdog, as a safeguard, as an extension of the curiosity of the American people.
The Correspondents Dinner, after all, has long been a matter of controversy, an event criticized by press critics both professional and amateur for its tendency to erode, in its flurry of glad-handing and elbow-rubbing, the lines separating journalists from the people they are meant to hold to account. What the critics are acknowledging implicitly is that journalism has expanded in another way since those first White House correspondents gathered in 1921: The press has become, also, the media. CNN anchors and New York Times reporters do their work within a vast system that mingles news and entertainment. They exist in a world in which many journalists, by default—many of the journalists, at least, who gather in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton every April—double as celebrities. It’s time to acknowledge that and proceed accordingly. Power and victimhood, jokes and seriousness, steak and fish: You can have it both ways, until you can’t.