The black-tie event is, strictly speaking, a fundraiser for journalism scholarships and a chance to honor reporters for their work. But we all know what’s really going on. It’s the one chance all year that Washington -- affectionately known as Hollywood for ugly people -- gets to rub shoulders with real Hollywood.
This year, with certified celebrities of our own occupying the White House, the anticipation has never been higher. The stars are coming out in force, and Barack and Michelle Obama are obliging by showing up (after skipping the Gridiron press dinner in March). The president will do a standup, and maybe show a video, and Mrs. Obama will present the scholarships.
For weeks, breathless reports have been pouring in on who’s coming -- Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Eva Longoria Parker, Tyra Banks, Jon Bon Jovi, and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, to name a few.
Stand-up comedian and actress Wanda Sykes will perform. Real life heroes -- Capt. Richard Phillips and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger -- will be there. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was going to come, but flooding is keeping her at home, so husband Todd is taking her place. The list goes on and on. Some news organizations, mainly the TV networks, work really hard to snag the most glamorous or newsworthy guests.
News industry in financial free-fall? Indeed, some papers have cut back on the $200-a-pop tickets. But demand for the 2,000 tickets is unprecedented, the organizers say.
In another bow to the economy, the WHCA is giving away more scholarship money than ever, $130,000. It’s also skipping dessert -- no chocolate mousse! -- and is instead making a donation of $23,000 to the organization So Others Might Eat, which helps the homeless.
Then there are the critics, who believe the dinner is all about inappropriate schmoozing between the media and the government figures they cover, and has turned into a grotesque display of slobbering over the beautiful and famous. Indeed, The New York Times doesn’t come to this and other press dinners anymore.
In defense of this event, aside from its charitable aspect, one can certainly argue that the possibility of grabbing a little face time with top Obama aides -- hello David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel -- is worth the price of admission, especially to news organizations that don’t normally enjoy that kind of access.
Another ethical question comes up over the issue of who news organizations treat to tickets. On Friday, Marketplace radio reported that Newsweek invited the CEO of drug company AstraZeneca, which spent $7 million on ads in the magazine last year.
“But tomorrow night he'll not only get the chance to mingle with celebrities like Natalie Portman,” said reporter Steve Henn. “He'll also get an opportunity to bend the ear of cabinet secretaries like [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder. And in Washington that kind of access is priceless.”
The WHCA has been holding these dinners since 1920, but the modern era of notorious invitees began in 1987, when the late Michael Kelly invited Fawn Hall, of Iran-contra document-shredding fame. The next year, Mr. Kelly invited Donna Rice, the onetime girlfriend of former senator and presidential aspirant Gary Hart.
By now, the battle for bold-face guests has become an arms race, with invitations going out even before the date of the dinner is known.
Without Sarah Palin, who was invited by Fox News, this year’s dinner will be the poorer. Maybe Alberto Gonzales, the controversial former attorney general and a guest of the Houston Chronicle, will say something worth a Tweet or two.
As for The Christian Science Monitor, we’re keeping it low-key. In recent years we haven't gone at all, but this year yours truly will be there, just to wave the flag.
We’ll be on the lookout for Axelrod and Emanuel, but my date -- my 16-year-old daughter (whose ticket is an early birthday present from her mom) -- has a different target: Ed Westwick and Chace Crawford. If you’ve ever seen the show “Gossip Girl,” you’ll know why.
Update, Sunday morning: We did find Ed Westwick ("Chuck Bass"). He posed for pix, and then we graciously let him get back to his dinner. No luck with Chace Crawford ("Nate Archibald").