Every year, at the invitation of the Gridiron Club, or the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (RTCA), or the White House Correspondents Association, the most famous political reporters in the US disgrace themselves in front of the American public - their wavering supporters.
Every year, the same reporters charged with covering our highest government officials come together to fawn over those same officials and perform skits that make light of our most serious national crises.
At the RTCA dinner on March 28, it was NBC's voraciously tough White House reporter David Gregory reduced to backup dancer for Karl Rove. At the Gridiron Club dinner on March 31, it was columnist Robert Novak impersonating the Vice President while satirizing the Scooter Libby case, which Novak helped initiate.
Every year, the public at large - those not ensconced in the clubby environs of Washington - give a collective sickened wretch when the details of these respected traditional events emerge. During Republican administrations, the clubby atmosphere outrages more liberals. During Democratic administrations, it outrages more conservatives. But even nonpartisan viewers can be outraged that the media, so wedded in rhetoric to transparency and innovation, has not evolved past this backslapping relic of the bad ol' days.
For journalists, whose reputation now hovers around that of used car salesmen, these kinds of events are the worst PR of the year. Barring another Jayson Blair scandal, nothing will disgust readers more this year than accounts of America's most influential reporters chortling over jokes that Dick Cheney is making at their expense. This is not normal source-development work; this is a public spectacle that, fairly or not, comes to exemplify the public perception of a duplicitous, do-nothing media in the nation's capital.
It's clear that politicians themselves see these events as a chance to humanize their image and make friends with key members of the press. But what does the press itself get out of them?
"Fat," says Jerry Zremski, a Washington reporter for the Buffalo News and current president of the National Press Club.
Quite right. But Zremski also says that the backlash to these events is overblown, and that they have real value for the participants.
"I think good reporters can manage to be civil and casually social on rare occasions with their sources without really being compromised," he says. "Reporters get to let their hair down, have a little fun, and show the world that they're human beings as well."
Likewise, DC public affairs veterans know that the dinners serve a purpose. Stan Collender, an MD at Qorvis Communications and longtime beltway insider, says that he has been to the events himself, and used them to get to know media pros better in a more relaxed setting. Less prominent politicians also use the events to put themselves on the media's radar. And none of it, Collender says, is really devious.
"These people are professionals. The fact that they may be doing a skit together or sitting at the same table doesn't mean that it's going to be more difficult for them tomorrow to ask tough questions," he says, and points out, "This is an administration that's called secretive, and not open to journalists. And here they are being criticized for being open to journalists."
Collender has a point - the politicians who participate in these events aren't doing anything wrong. Their job is to be popular. For the journalists, it's a different matter. News organizations that won't even allow reporters to place a campaign sticker on their car or march in a protest on their own time have no problem with them playing footsie on C-Span with the key subjects of their beat.
The public sees that as an indictment of journalists' ethics, and predictably so. With so much effort being put into minimizing "the appearance of conflict," the media should take the logical step of abandoning these events to history.