The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has long-cited its scholarships for aspiring journalists to justify the tax-exempt charitable status of its blow-out, televised annual dinner, but only a small fraction of the IRS-designated 501(c)(3) organization’s fundraising is awarded to students.
Last year, just 13.4 percent of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s revenue went to scholarships. As Columbia Journalism Review‘s Karen K. Ho reported:
[T]he dinner cost $553,719 to put on, and generated $806,250 in ticket sales and donations. (A detailed accounting of the 2018 event isn’t yet available.) Less than half of the contributions—$108,000—went to 25 scholarships; the rest went to general operating expenses like the organization’s searchable pool report archive or programming like panels with former White House secretaries. And the WHCA as a whole netted just over $29,000 for the fiscal year ending in October 2017.
$452,817 was spent on the venue and food, $24,191 on host Hasan Minhaj and other entertainment, and $76,711 for the percent of the executive director’s salary spent working on the dinner, as well as payments to vendors and event staff for a total of $553,719.
In 2016, it was even worse. The Washington Post reported the annual dinner was “nearly the entire source of [the association’s] annual revenue of around $600,000.” That year, the association awarded “about $77,500 to 18 students,” Money‘s Kaitlin Mulhere reported. “That’s small change compared to the incredible amount of money spent on and around what’s been dubbed D.C.’s Nerd Prom,” she added.
At just 12.9 percent of its estimated revenue, the WHCA’s 2016 scholarship payout was down from the 21.5 percent spent in 2014, which was also down from 26 percent in 2013 and nearly 60 percent in 2009, according to the Washingtonian.
In a statement on its website, the WHCA says it will give $134,500 to students this year. So far, 26 recipients have received $112,000. While additional details about the WHCA’s 2018 finances are, for now, unavailable, some reports estimate attendance this year was around 3,000. At $300 a seat, and thus, an approximate revenue of $900,000, an estimate for the association’s scholarship payout in 2018 would be roughly 15 percent.
In 2015, the WHCA was forced to defend itself after journalists like Mulhere raised questions about its small-by-comparison scholarship program. Three years later, the association’s website still read that the mission of its annual dinner was “to raise money for WHCA scholarships and honor the professional recipients of the WHCA’s journalism awards.” Sometime between Tuesday and Thursday morning, however, the WHCA revamped its website. The language describing the dinner now reads:
The White House Correspondents’ Association holds an annual dinner to salute the First Amendment, honor award-winning journalism and recognize scholarship winners. Proceeds from the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner finance the WHCA’s operating expenses year-round in support of the White House press corps, programs to help journalists and inform the public, as well as scholarships and awards that recognize aspiring and accomplished journalists (emphasis added).
When Ho asked this week if the focus of the dinner was, in fact, the student scholarships, WHCA Executive Director Steven Thomma said the website’s description was “old language.”
“It has to be absolutely clear: the annual dinner raises money for all of our expenses. It finances not just the the [sic] scholarships but also our operating expenses,” Thomma explained, according to Ho.
The fallout from last Saturday’s controversial performance by comedian Michelle Wolf – in which she graphically insulted White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – shoved old concerns about the legitimacy of the WHCA’s charitable purpose back into the spotlight. The combined backlash prompted questions in the journalism world as to the dinner’s overall legitimacy.
James Finkelstein, chairman of the Hill, announced in a letter to Thomma Tuesday that his organization will no longer partake in the dinner moving forward because “in short, there’s simply no reason for us to participate in something that casts our profession in a poor light.”
Bill Grueskin, a faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School, one of the schools partnered with the WHCA’s scholarship program, tweeted on Sunday about the “utter worthlessness” of the dinner and the “fiction” that its “vital for the cause of journalism education.”
Some of his tweets include:
Do the math, and you’ll see that comes to a donation of around $50 per attendee – or about what attendees pay to dry-clean their gowns and tuxedoes, to say nothing of what gets spent on before and after parties. Hard to imagine a more inefficient fund-raiser… 4/
— Bill Grueskin (@BGrueskin) April 29, 2018
And for that support, our students get to see some of the worst of access journalism: the sucking up to the powerful, the onanistic orgy of journalistic self-congratulation, the next-day hangover of ritual humiliation and pitiful self-loathing … 5/
— Bill Grueskin (@BGrueskin) April 29, 2018
The WHCA, however, appears undeterred by the criticism. Along with the new description of the dinner, its site had another change this week: a save-the-date for 2019’s extravaganza. “The 2019 dinner will be held on Saturday, April 27th,” it reads.
What was once a single evening of C-SPAN programming, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) is now a small part of an extravagant extended weekend. Dozens of events — glitzy parties with celebrity-studded red carpets — attract a concentration of wealth once a year to the nation’s capital, with outside spending increasing over the years.
In 2016, Mulhere posed:
No doubt hosting D.C.’s version of the Oscars isn’t cheap. But if the total money awarded in scholarships is just a fraction of the revenue brought in, we have to wonder: Is the event truly a scholarship fundraiser? Or is it just another fancy dinner for the Washington elite, with college students getting the crumbs?
Breitbart News reached out twice to the WHCA for comment but received no reply.