Kelly O’Donnell Previews the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: ‘The Biggest Undertaking of My Professional Life’

By Ethan Alter 

As president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Kelly O’Donnell knows everything there is to know about what’s going to happen at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Well… almost everything.

“The only two things I don’t know are what [emcee] Colin Jost will say and what the President of the United States will say,” NBC News’ senior White House correspondent admits to TVNewser with a laugh. “But with everything else dinner-related, I am neck deep in all the details!”

Not that O’Donnell minds that Jost and President Joe Biden are keeping their plans to themselves. After all, that’s their prerogative as the headliners of the annual event affectionally known among the Washington, D.C. social set as Nerd Prom. Held annually at the Washington Hilton, the event draws a star-studded crowd that extends well beyond journalism geeks—think Hollywood celebrities, business tycoons and world leaders. (Read how you can watch the event here.)


Orchestrating an A-list event that meets the standards of that kind of A-list crowd is the biggest task facing every incoming WHCA president during their year-long tenures. And O’Donnell says that prep work for the 2024 dinner started as soon as she took office last summer. “There’s a timeline that you receive the moment you become president,” she reveals. “You have to get your headline entertainer and also plan the scholarships and awards, which are a big part of the night. You’re also choosing the menu and the linens for the table. It’s an extraordinary list of to-dos and the biggest undertaking of my professional life.”

But it’s also an undertaking that O’Donnell was eager take on—particularly this year. 2024 marks her 30th year at NBC News, and her pearl anniversary present is becoming the first sitting NBC journalist in the outlet’s history to lead the WHCA. O’Donnell celebrated both milestones with a dinner at Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C. attended by her NBC colleagues—a dinner she thankfully didn’t have to plan herself.

While O’Donnell’s time as WHCA president doesn’t officially end with Nerd Prom, she’s already preparing to hand over the title—and the party planning powers that come with it—to Politico’s Eugene Daniels. And she confesses to being a little disappointed about entering lame duck status.

“I’m happy for my dear friend Eugene, and I’ll be a cheerleader on the sidelines available to him at any point,” O’Donnell says. “This has been the greatest professional experience of my life in terms of serving our community, so I will be sad when it’s over.”

“But that’s how it works,” she adds, teeing up a Jost-ready punchline. “We will have a peaceful transition of power!”

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What’s been the biggest learning curve as WHCA president?  

As much as I’ve been around the White House for many years and several administrations, I never fully appreciated the depth, complexity and relentlessness of the association’s work. We’re involved in planning the press component of events on the White House campus, foreign trips and other activities for our members. Even for simple things, like if there’s an overflow in the bathroom, they call us! So it’s a huge job, but it’s one where I find enormous satisfaction, because I’m directly connected with the members on a daily basis.

The other surprise was the scale of the dinner. I’ve never planned an event of this scale! We’ve had a lot of help from the Washington Hilton and asked for a lot of favors from a lot of friends. It’s been very fun and very exciting, and I’m glad that we’re almost home.

Weekend Update hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che. (Courtesy NBCUniversal Media)

Colin Jost is obviously already part of the NBC family thanks to Saturday Night Live. Was that how you got him to host?

We certainly did make that pitch. And let’s be honest: It’s my 30th anniversary at NBC, so I was going to ask for someone who also has the peacock in their blood. [Laughs] But Colin was my target from the beginning. Because of where he is in his career—not to mention his particular set of skills talking about the news of the day on live television—I knew he was perfectly suited for this moment.

For me the big anxiety was would he say yes, because that’s known to be a hard room for comics. And thank goodness he did. We’ve had conversations about his monologue and the goals of the night, but I have not asked about what the content of his set is. I know that he understands the assignment, and we’ve also received wonderful support from Lorne Michaels and the rest of the SNL team. They’ve been working incredibly hard preparing for this.

Was there anything you hoped to do differently with the dinner this year?

One thing I really wanted to achieve is allowing our members see themselves at our dinner. It’s a night that gets a lot of attention and brings in people from around the country, but I wanted to make sure that it reminds the WHCA of who we are and what we do. We represent correspondents, news managers, photographers, audio technicians and journalists from all over the world. I want them all to feel like they are represented and appreciated since they’ve given me the honor of doing this work.

We’re also very aware that the dinner is set against a backdrop of the news of the moment, and right now there is a lot of intense and serious news. But we know that any professional community can have an evening to celebrate the best of its work and that’s what we’re doing. We aren’t unaware of the wars [being fought overseas] or the hard political year ahead, but we believe that taking one night off to honor the First Amendment is worth doing. And then we’ll get right back to work.

Kristen Welker and O’Donnell celebrating the WHCA president’s 30th anniversary at NBC News. (Courtesy NBC News)

The fact that we’re in an election year would certainly seem to add an extra layer of intensity. 

Very much so. In both the planning and the content creation for Saturday night, I’ve repeatedly said that our sense of humor needs to be across the political spectrum. The point of laughing at ourselves is that we’re laughing at all of us, not just some of us. I want people who watch the dinner to feel like the spirit of it is using laughter to take ourselves a little less seriously and maybe find a little common ground in a very contentious year.

It’s been a difficult year for the news media as well in terms of the overall health of the industry. Do you also hope to remind journalists why they’re doing this work? 

Absolutely, and we will acknowledge that in our program. There are lots of challenges facing journalists right now, and it’s important for them to remember that they do this work because they’re passionate about it. We’re in a time where journalists are put in harm’s way in war zones, and we also know about [the struggles] in the job market. That has directly affected some of our White House unit teams who have seen shrinking of staff during these hard economic times.

My message to news consumers is if these things matter to you, please think about how you can support a local newspaper with a subscription. Newsgathering is incredibly costly, and we need business models that are resilient. Part of that is making sure we deliver something that consumers are willing to pay for so that these jobs can be supported.

Beyond the dinner, what are some of the other initiatives you’ve tried to pursue as WHCA president?

In the social media age, it’s easy for people in the White House to make their own videos or do interviews with outlets that aren’t media organizations. And all of that is a welcome addition for the public. But we believe very strongly that it’s not a a substitute for professional journalism. What makes what we do special is that we are experts on the subject matter, and we have editorial standards that strengthen the work we do. There’s a process and that’s valuable in a time when people have difficulty knowing what’s valid and what’s not in a huge universe of information.

A lot of that has been pushing [the White House] for access so that our members are in the room, and making certain that we get opportunities to speak to the president as often as possible. That’s the kind of daily advocacy we do. Every time a foreign leader is on the schedule or there’s a big news event happening at the White House, we begin asking for access in advance. We have some wins and some times when we’re disappointed, but we work at it every day.

To that point, President Biden has been criticized for not making himself more accessible to the press. Have you had success getting your members in the room with him? 

We work at that regularly, and there is more that we would like to see done. I do believe the president makes an effort to respond to questions. We would prefer that we had a more organized way to ask questions, and by that I mean we have to shout questions—he does often respond to a number of those. But we’d like to have opportunities where we don’t have to shout, and chances to ask a broader range of questions and have more opportunities to be in the room with him. That tension will always exist, and that’s not meant as a complaint: Part of the work that we do is to try and push that ball forward.