The Sunlight Foundation decided to be the skunk at Washington, D.C.’s party.
Staff from the political transparency nonprofit asked the journalists, celebrities and Beltway power brokers leaving a White House Correspondents Dinner party at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday night if they would donate the pricy swag bags doled out at the party as charity to the organization. (The dinner itself is on Saturday evening, but parties and other events associated with it take place all weekend.)
The nonpartisan group caught many of the interactions on camera.
The six-and-a-half minutes of footage the foundation released on Saturday don't flatter the members of the media, entertainment and political elite attending the lavish affair.
Donations were not exactly forthcoming. Many people can be seen studiously ignoring the Sunlight staffers as if they were panhandlers.
Keegan-Michael Key, the star of the forthcoming film “Keanu” and the former Comedy Central show “Key & Peele,” claimed he could not hear them properly.
When one of the staff members asked MSNBC chief legal correspondent Ari Melber if he would donate his bag, Melber responded, “No, but I do love the Sunlight Foundation.”
At least one journalist thought the gimmick was in poor taste.
“Don’t make us look bad because we’re going to a party,” said CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
As the evening progressed, the outlook for donations grew grimmer -- and so did the music in the background of the Sunlight Foundation’s video.
Luckily, relief arrived in the form of The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. Stein donated at least two items from his bag.
“I support this mission, whatever it is,” Stein said.
Then the floodgates opened. A series of people appeared on screen handing over the expensive goody bags of sponsors' luxury products distributed at the party.
Melissa Yeager, a senior staff writer for the Sunlight Foundation who was on hand outside the St. Regis, said the group’s staffers had collected a total of five bags. They asked dozens of people from 7 to 9 p.m.
“We were actually pretty excited about” the haul, Yeager said.
The Sunlight Foundation has not yet decided how it will convert the bags into cash for the organization. One possibility is that they will auction the bags off, Yeager said.
The nonprofit had conceived of the activity partly as an “innovative fundraiser" in the hopes of capitalizing on journalists’ appreciation for their work, Yeager said.
But the primary goal of the stunt was to “draw attention to how influence can work in Washington,” she said.
While it might not be strictly unethical for reporters to accept the expensive goody bags distributed at the party, Yeager noted they do edge into a gray area that should raise questions.
“If you are reporting on issues of influence, I think it’s good to be aware of how influence can be a force in your life as well,” she concluded.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Sunlight Foundation operates OpenSecrets.org. That website is run by the Center for Responsive Politics.