Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: White House is no place for a media party

SAN DIEGO – Here’s a holiday epiphany: Journalists should never go to Christmas parties at the White House.

They might wind up at the end of the evening with a lovely photo posing with the president and first lady flanked by Christmas trees. But will they still respect themselves in the morning?

After all, there is no free eggnog. And, in this case, journalists who take perks from politicians can be accused of being compromised.

To set the table, let’s start with a couple of facts.

First, this is no ordinary job we’re talking about. The most honorable role a journalist can fill – indeed, you could argue, the whole reason the profession exists – is to hold accountable those in power and hammer them when necessary.

Indeed, the best relationships between elected officials and members of the news media are sometimes frosty. But better frosty than cozy. The gold standard is still the dynamic that played out in the Windy City during the 1960s and ’70s involving Chicago columnist Mike Royko and Mayor Richard J. Daley – neither of whom, it is clear, cared much for the other.

Second, the allure of the White House can be consuming, no matter who you are, especially during the holidays when the place is decked out in lights and decorations. The vulnerable include anyone who snags an invitation to one of several holiday parties. Whether the invited guest is a lobbyist, a congressional staffer, a Cabinet aide or the leader of a nonprofit organization, we can be assured that the awestruck individual, while feasting at the sumptuous tables, is thinking only one thing: “How do I get invited back here next year?”

Journalists aren’t immune. But for some of them, the question they ask themselves might be: How well do I have to behave for the next 12 months to get invited back? I have heard from well-placed sources over the years that White House chiefs of staff or press secretaries are known to keep a list of who has been naughty or nice.

Disclosure: I usually end up on the naughty list. That must be why I never get an invitation to the White House Christmas party.

I’m fine with that. “The naughty list” is exactly where all journalists should be, no matter who the president is and which party controls the office. You’re not supposed to give the powerful hugs. You’re supposed to give them heck.

Tell that to Joe Scarborough, the outspoken co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Last week, the former congressman – who isn’t a journalist although he plays one on television – made a casual reference during a panel discussion to the fact that he and co-host Mika Brzezinski had been “to the White House” to attend a holiday party.

Scarborough went on to say how remarkable it was that president and Mrs. Obama attend two parties a night for 10 days in a row during this time of year.

What I find remarkable is that many journalists who wind up on the “nice” list don’t see a problem in attending these parties. Also on the show was Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post reporter, who recalled attending a party one year with his wife.

Scarborough explained that, every year, he takes one of his children with him. According to him, Brzezinski also took her daughter.

“Somebody asked, ‘How long are you going to be going to these White House Christmas parties?’” Scarborough said. “I said, ‘Until I run out of kids.’”

There’s the problem. This is one of those instances where journalists get to shine in front of their spouses and kids. For 364 days out of the year, daddy or mommy is just that distracted person living in the house who is always staring at the clock, watching the news during dinner, stressing over deadlines, working late and typing feverishly on smartphones or tablets.

But on the night of the White House holiday party, all this changes. The parent becomes a superhero, someone important enough to be invited to a special gathering at a special place.

That’s a strong drug, and it’s really easy to get addicted. The safest route for journalists is to stay away from temptation, and find their holiday cheer somewhere else.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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