Get A Seat At The Table

If history is any guide, Saturday’s seating at the Washington Hilton of nearly 3,000 diners for the White House Correspondents Association Dinner will probably be stately and elegant, albeit a little boisterous. It will be, however, the finished polished products of months of work, careful negotiations, frantic invitations, and griping.

There will be, as usual, 261 tables at the dinner–not nearly enough to satisfy demand. Each seat costs a news agency $175 or $1,750 for a table of ten–not nearly enough to stem the demand for an event that is Washington’s version of Fashion Week, the Oscars, and prom all rolled into one.

After the jump, we’ll tell you more about the seating practices and fights than you ever wanted to know.

The bottom line of the dinner is that there’s no way to make everyone happy.

There just aren’t nearly enough tables. Thus every year reporters grumble about not being able to get seats, and their bosses grumble about not being able to secure enough tables to invite famous celebrities and friends.

According to WHCA, the first round of tables-up to eight tables each-go to members of the association board, and next preference is given to regular members of the in-town pool, and then other regular and associate members of the association.

Sounds simple, right? Not so much. There aren’t nearly enough tables to give every member eight tables, and few reporters outside of the regular pool end up getting their requested numbers of tables.

Thus other factors go into the weighing of the dinners, including the size of an organization’s White House bureau and the association gives some preference to correspondents whose bureau consists of the White House press area and don’t have workspace elsewhere in the city.

And even here at the correspondents’ dinner, though, reporters are feeling the results of media consolidation. To maintain equity, the association has had to wrestle with how to respond to the increasing number of large conglomerates. For instance, Dow Jones now requests tables at the dinner for the Wall Street Journal, the Dow Jones Newswire, and Barron’s. Atlantic Media submitted a giant check this year covering Hotline and National Journal (eight tables), the Atlantic (three tables), and CongressDaily (one table). The answer, unfortunately, often is that a news organization like the WSJ ends up losing a table (or two) to give the smaller organizations like Barron’s a seat at the dinner.

In most cases the lack of table space angers the corporate bosses more than the regular reporters because the corporate heavyweights use the dinner to reward friends, advertisers, and make news with their celebrity “gets.”

Now the correspondents dinner didn’t always have such demand. For a long time, the dinner never filled the room, but ever since Michael Kelly was told by his editors at the Baltimore Sun in 1987 to bring someone who would make news, reporters and news organization have begun a race to the bottom for flashy guests. Beginning especially in the Clinton years, the dinner has gotten hot as organizations have competed to outglitz each other with Hollywood stars.

Even a recent price increase from $150 to $175 a seat has done nothing to stem the interest. This year the association turned back over $60,000 to organizations when it couldn’t meet their demand for seats and tables.

Recent measures to reform the process–for instance decreasing the maximum numbers of tables an organization can receive–have failed because many of the largest and richest organizations count on the seats to invite prominent advertisers, executives, friends, or celebrities.

This year’s seating chart will some changes too: No longer will organizations’ table radiate from the center like spikes on a wheel. Instead, more organizations will have a fewer number of tables up front, close to the action, with the rest grouped further towards the rear. The point of the change, obviously, is to give better seats to a more diverse group of organizations.

But regardless of who gets seated where, no doubt there’ll still be lots of grumbling come dinner Saturday as reporters and their bosses lament how much fun they could be having if they had only gotten one more table…