WHCD: Who Gets In?

Who gets a ticket to the White House Correspondents Dinner?

It is one of the great mysteries of Washington unless you are a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association or a very important or famous person. In a town where power and positioning are everything, for this one weekend there is no greater power meter than where you sit and who you get as a guest for the WHCD.

What news organizations are eligible to get a table and how do they pick their guests? News organizations that employ members of the White House Correspondents’ Association can rest assured that they will get tables (approximately $2,000 a pop in recent years) for the big night. According to the WHCA Web site, an association member is defined as “a correspondent employed on the editorial staff of a newspaper, magazine, wire service, radio, TV, cable TV, or other broadcast organization or news gathering organization that regularly reports on the White House.” Moreover, the correspondent’s “principal journalistic assignments must involve White House coverage with such activities as attending briefings or participating in the in-town pool rotation,” and he or she “must have permanent White House press credentials.”

For major media outlets that do not have regular White House presence — from People Magazine to GQ — you can apply for a table, with a check in advance, to line up for access to tables. The longtime executive director of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Julia Whitson, is a beloved figure in Washington but probably a little feared by out-of-towners who are vying for table access. Ms. Whitson makes the decision based on a news organization’s ability to prove their worth through the high level newsies or the recognizable stars they can bring in. It is about as fair a system as it can be because it rewards those who are most inspired to make the event a success. Ms. Whitson declined to talk to WhiteHouseCorrespondentsWeekendInsider.com.

If you are not a White House reporter, top editor or bureau chief then you have to be invited by a news organization and scoring tickets is about as easy as getting a subprime loan approved right now. Even the most well-connected can have a hard time, and the 2009 bash may prove to be the most exclusive one of all. The President is the guest of honor, and the demand to see the first rock star president in modern history has made the annual scramble harrowing.

The 36,000 square-foot ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the venue for the dinner, typically fits over 2,600 guests at about 260 tables. Each news organization that qualifies can purchase up to eight tables and distribute tickets for the ten seats per table as they see fit. But the definition of what constitutes an individual organization is a little different than many might assume. For example, a national television network can have a broadcast division in addition to radio and Internet – each of which can be its own organization, thus providing them with more than the eight tables. Major news operations and publications that do not cover the White House every day — regardless of their success outside of Washington — will not necessarily be granted a table. And news organizations whose correspondents are on the WHCA board of directors can get a better table location. This is particularly true for the news org that employs the officers of the WHCA. This year’s president is Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press.

Who Gets a Seat?

Most people are familiar with the kinds of stars and celebrities who turn out for this dinner year after year, but more than just a desire to rub elbows with the famous dictates who will attend. Many news organizations use the dinner as an opportunity to showcase their own talent (particularly the broadcast networks and cable news channels), while others have more immediate business interests in mind. Some organizations, especially print, like to woo or reward advertisers with a seat at the table. And, of course, there’s almost always plenty of room for important sources or potential sources, be they Washington officialdom (like congressmen, Cabinet secretaries and the like) or influential staff members from Congress or the Obama administration. One of the surprises for first-timers, even those bringing large portfolios to the dinner, is the usual restriction on spousal attendance. Because of the demand, the dinner is generally over-booked, and even high-profile leaders are asked to come to the dinner solo. Since many journalists are married to one another, it’s not unusual to see both at a dinner, but very rarely are they seated together.

Where There’s a Will …

All dressed up with no ticket? No problem, just throw on that tuxedo or formal gown and head over to the Hilton anyway. But don’t think you’re going to sneak into the dinner, not with the airtight security that everyone is forced to go through. In the last ten years, a full red carpet parade has developed, with Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and other entertainment shows lined up to talk to celebrities as they enter the hotel. Last year was a classic as Pamela Anderson followed Colin Powell down the line. Fortunately, the action in the hotel itself doesn’t stop when the color guard and head table guests arrive in the ballroom. Many crashers are younger journalists who want a taste of the fun; others show up just to be seen roaming around the halls, glad-handing and making contacts. While the invitees crowd the ballroom for their dinner (generally a cut above the rubber-chicken fare served at most large events), these “outside” party-goers will head to the hotel bars or nearby restaurants for a couple hours until the dinner is over and then rejoin the party once again, when the after-dinner bashes get going. The most exclusive is the Bloomberg After Party, but getting in is an even more difficult proposition than snagging a ticket to the dinner itself. A few news organizations grab hotel meeting rooms for post dinner drinks. In the past few years one of Washington’s hottest bachelors, Glover Park’s Mike Feldman, has thrown the After After party for a chosen few. Other parties are thrown at different places, usually within walking distance of the Hilton. So, opportunity abounds. After all, in Washington, where there’s a will to get up close to the powerful, there’s almost always a way.

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