White House Correspondents Association Spends More On Its Director's Salary Than On Scholarships

04/22/2015 06:58 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The nonprofit White House Correspondents Association spends more on its chief executive's salary than it does on program services, a new documentary reports.

The film, "Nerd Prom: Inside Washington's Wildest Week," uses tax records to show that the association's executive director, Julia Whiston, earns $141,685 a year, while it spends $131,550 in grants and other program services. The WHCA's annual dinner awards grants to select college journalists.

Christi Parsons, a White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, defended the salary as appropriate because the group's primary objective, she said, is not scholarship fundraising, but advocating for openness at the White House.

"That salary-to-grant ratio would be relevant if we were a scholarship fundraising organization, but we are not," Parsons said. "We are a group that fights for openness and transparency at the White House. That’s what our outstanding executive director is paid a competitive salary to help us do."

For its program services to exceed what it spends on its director's salary, the association would need to either pay less, or do more fundraising. Parsons argued that raising money from the corporations that glom onto the famous White House Correspondents Association Dinner weekend would be inappropriate.

"Could we raise more for scholarships? Surely we could, but we are not fundraisers," Parsons said. "And I don’t think most of our members would be comfortable with the idea of fellow journalists going hat-in-hand to corporations trying to raise money. That would not be consistent with the mission of our board or our organization."

The argument echoes Noam Chomsky's critique of the corporate media. And, of course, the news organizations in the association -- including The Huffington Post -- are already largely owned and funded by corporations, so it is plausible that money could be raised without compromising the media any more than it already is. But if a single corporation gave a huge check to the association, the leaders of that group, who are White House correspondents from major news organizations, would certainly be aware of the gift, no matter how arms-length, and it would have corrupting potential.

Ken Berger, the head of Charity Navigator, is interviewed in the documentary and said he is skeptical of the arrangement. "That's very unusual," Berger said of the salary-to-spending ratio. "That's very worrisome."

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