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Journalists Reconsider Purpose Of The White House Correspondents' Dinner

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The White House Correspondents' Dinner tomorrow night is going to be a little different from previous years. For the first time in 36 years, the president will not attend. And members of his administration won't come, either. Some of the glitziest parties aren't happening this year. And some of the most tabloid-friendly celebrities were not invited.

Some media analysts who have been critical of the event in the past say these changes might not be such a bad thing. Jim Warren has written about the White House Correspondents' Dinner for Vanity Fair and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Welcome to the program.

JIM WARREN: Hey. It's a great pleasure.

SHAPIRO: This event has been called nerd prom, where Cabinet members air kiss movie stars. And it seems like this year, the emphasis is more on the nerd and less on the prom.

WARREN: Well, yeah because you're going to have far fewer prom celebs there, even though the dinner is going to be sold out - no surprise. But it'll still remain, I think, you know, a large and very revealing window onto certain sort of melancholy complexities of the Washington journalism and political culture since it's morphed rather dramatically from a pretty staid gathering into, you know, what's still going to be a celebrity-filled bacchanal.

SHAPIRO: By way of disclosure, when I was a White House correspondent, I served on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association which puts on the dinner. And NPR plans to attend this year as usual. Our tables are paid for by NPR trustees. Before President Trump said that he would not attend, he called the media the enemy of the people.

And some news organizations were wringing their hands over whether it would be endorsing Trump's attacks on the media to attend or whether boycotting would play into his narrative. Do you think the president did the media a favor by deciding not to attend this year?

WARREN: No, not at all. I think there might be a little recalibration, a little more focus on the substance of what we do since it does have a journalism scholarship component. But no, I think the essence will remain. And I wouldn't be surprised in a couple of years if he shows.

SHAPIRO: You've attended the dinner as Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Do you think there's some value in having a moment when members of the administration and their antagonists and the press can call a cease-fire and just laugh at themselves and each other together for a night?

WARREN: Yes, for sure. I mean, this is not an evil gathering. Nobody's doing harm to anyone. I just think it's gotten a little too big, a little too grand, diverted a little bit too much from its original intent which was pretty darn benign - to hold an understated tribute to good work in the company of folks who have helped us a bit with that work.

SHAPIRO: Is there something wrong with in a very public setting dining out with people who are your sources? Does it cross a line that taking a source to dinner at a restaurant privately does not?

WARREN: Yeah. I think this is so overt. And if you want to know why the press can consistently fail to fully understand the desires and needs of many Americans, as we proved in many of us missing the Trump phenomenon, go there tomorrow night and see how removed many - not all, but many - of the assembled are from I think a basic reflexive understanding of a world in which the riches and status found in that big ballroom really do constitute another universe.

SHAPIRO: But I think some would argue that getting rid of the dinner certainly doesn't change that. It doesn't suddenly make more of the media based in the heartland, rather than the coasts and so on.

WARREN: No, it doesn't. And I will also stipulate that it can be a lot of booze-filled fun for many. I've had some booze-filled fun there. My hands aren't clean.

SHAPIRO: I'm not sure that mine are either, to be honest.

WARREN: Yeah. And I - you know, for several years, colleagues at the Chicago Tribune back in the 1990s were lobbying me to invite celebrities. And finally, I broke down but I still think it can verge on the unseemly with a sort of can-you-top-this air and which is one reason why there are some - notably The New York Times - which does not come. And this had nothing to do with Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: Jim Warren of Poynter and Vanity Fair, thanks a lot for joining us.

WARREN: Hey, a pleasure. Have a great weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "FLASHING LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.