“This is a moment when people already think the press is too cozy with government,” said Dean Baquet, The New York Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau chief. “And I think these events confirm that.”
Mr. Baquet was on the phone on April 30, nine days after his first-ever trip to a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner—and his last, according to the newspaper’s current plans.
On April 29, op-ed columnist Frank Rich harangued the Washington press corps for its prewar reporting and its apparent coziness with Bush administration officials. Roughly 1,100 words into his weekly column, Mr. Rich buried the lead: “After last weekend’s correspondents’ dinner, the Times decided to end its participation in such events.”
Mr. Baquet confirmed that Mr. Rich’s report was correct, and that the annual correspondents’ dinner will go on without The Times.
“We’re going to start reviewing them all,” said Mr. Baquet, the former Los Angeles Times editor who took over the bureau in March. He mentioned the annual Gridiron Dinner skit-comedy night as another event being reconsidered.
Executive editor Bill Keller, in an e-mail to The Observer, confirmed that the new policy change could extend far outside the beltway: Events that cater to City Hall and Statehouse reporters in New York—the Inner Circle dinner and Legislative Correspondents’ Dinner—are also on the hit list.
The May 5 Legislative Correspondents’ Dinner in Albany will be the last one for The Times, one staffer said, citing an internal memo. The most recent Inner Circle gala was April 14. (Metro editor Joe Sexton declined to comment on the local events.)
“I think we need to start sending a signal to the public that journalists and the people we cover have a polite but adversarial relationship,” said Mr. Baquet of the D.C. events. “We shouldn’t do anything that goes against that right now.”
The Times’ final snuggle with the Bush administration was a memorable one. Mr. Baquet, sat at Table 92 in the Washington Hilton ballroom, along with Maureen Dowd, Jim Rutenberg, Adam Nagourney, David Sanger, Douglas Jehl, Kate Phillips—and Karl Rove, the President’s bare-knuckled chief advisor and strategist.
The Times’ guest had been invited a few months earlier by Mr. Rutenberg, prior to the time that Mr. Baquet took over the bureau.
Mr. Rove’s presence led celebrity guests Sheryl Crow (a guest of Bloomberg News) and Laurie David (a guest of CNN) to confront him over environmental policy. Angry words ensued. Though the spat occurred at The Times’ table, it was The Washington Post—not The Times—that broke the story the following day.
Mr. Sanger said that he saw the two women speaking to Mr. Rove but didn’t think it was a big altercation, and that the event didn’t influence the rest of the evening.
However, he said he understands the masthead’s decision.
“I don’t think there’s any reportorial loss from not attending the dinners,” said Mr. Sanger. “I think the imagery of these on television creates a false impression that we regularly sit around with members of the administration, laughing at each other’s bad jokes. That’s not what life in Washington is like, so it’s probably just as well not to attend.”
Mr. Baquet said that the decision to stop participating in the dinners “has nothing to do with the Rove dustup.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Baquet—who later attended the Bloomberg News after-party, waiting in the long line of tuxedos outside the Costa Rican embassy to gain admission—said that he felt “uncomfortable” with the entire night.
Mr. Baquet said that executive editor Bill Keller has been no fan of the correspondents’ dinner. Bill said, when I got here, that he’d be interested in seeing what I thought of it.”
“I’d say our distaste for these events has been cumulative,” wrote executive editor Bill Keller in an e-mail to The Observer. “There was no one thing. Or maybe everybody has his or her own cringe-making moment. For me personally, the tipping point may have been watching Karl Rove on YouTube, doing a rap routine with reporters at the TV correspondents’ dinner.”
Two days after the April 21 dinner, Mr. Baquet e-mailed Mr. Keller to endorse the idea of no longer going.
This is not the first swearing-off of the dinner by The Times. In 1999, Michael Oreskes, then the bureau chief, pulled out of the event.
“The dinner was an embarrassment then and has grown only worse since,” wrote Mr. Oreskes, now executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, via e-mail.
After Mr. Oreskes left the bureau in Dec. 2000 and was replaced by Jill Abramson, The Times got out the tuxedos and party gowns again. Ms. Abramson, now a managing editor, didn’t respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.
“I have never thought it proper or wise for journalists to participate in our own ritual humiliation,” Mr. Oreskes wrote. “I am proud of The New York Times for saying, ‘No more.’ I can’t give advice to other publications. But it is crucial for every journalist to be looking for ways to strengthen our credibility. We should all concentrate on building the trust of our audiences and then try bowling on Saturday nights.”
Retired Timesman Adam Clymer, who was Washington editor under Mr. Oreskes, said he hopes the reform movement doesn’t go too far. Mr. Clymer endorsed the idea of getting out of the correspondents’ dinner—“Mike and I were so repelled by the spectacle of Paula Jones as a guest”—but now helps run the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner.
“It’s great as a spectacle,” said Peter Baker, the White House correspondent for The Washington Post. “Go, don’t go—who cares? I have more of a problem with government institutions holding briefings with 40 reporters on background. That’s what we should take a stand on. I don’t think anybody is compromised by having a drink with a source and listening to bad comedy. All the Sturm und Drang over the dinners is a waste of time.”
“Our dinner funds a foundation that provides scholarships, that provides books for schools in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Clymer said of his event. “I’d be unhappy if The Times didn’t come.”