Press Box

The Kennedy Center Dishonors

The award program the Washington Post loves to slobber over.

Twice a year, the Washington Post Style section drops all journalistic self-respect to hype a pathetic awards ceremony called “The Kennedy Center Honors.”

Style’s first genuflection to the event, produced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, comes each September when the center announces the five or six artists to be “honored” for their “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.” This year, as in years past, Style puffed the KenCen press release into a section-topping story: “Streisand, Freeman, Tharp Among Kennedy Center Fab Six” (Sept. 10). The article doesn’t have to explain how special this event is because the honorees do it for them. Morgan Freeman calls the awards ceremony “very special.” Twyla Tharp agrees that “it is special.” Barbra Streisand: “This is special recognition.”

The Style section’s second genuflection to the affair comes in December, as the Kennedy Center stages a black-tie whoop-de-do for the honorees in its Potomac-hugging pillbox. The section gives each honoree a tongue bath—I mean a profile—and reports breathlessly on such exciting events as the State Department dinner and White House reception for the honorees.

As with many awards programs, you’ve got to read into the fine print to discover that its primary function is not to honor great artists. Folks like Streisand, Freeman, Tharp, and this year’s other honorees—Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and George Jones—need to rent aircraft hangars to store their Emmys, Tonys, Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, MTV and CMT awards, and various lifetime-achievement trophies. Rather,  the event exists primarily to raise money, as this Kennedy Center Web page confesses: “The Honors gala is the Kennedy Center’s most important annual fundraising event, supporting its performing arts, education, and outreach programs.”

It’s a racket, and the Style section is an accomplice.

Although Style considers the honors a big deal, the only other U.S. dailies to cover the announcement this week were the New York Times and the Washington Times. Our friend Nexis informs us that the only other coverage earned by the affair was tiny squibs in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Courier-Journal in Louisville, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Orlando Sentinel, the Seattle Times, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The mighty Los Angeles Times, which obsesses about arts and entertainment news,wasted not a column inch on the topic. CBS tapes the event but airs it in late December, historically the lowest rating period in the year.

As I plowed through the acres of toadying Style copy and set my word processor to full-bile, I was pleased to discover a piece that delivers more damage to the Kennedy Center Honors than I ever could. The second surprise was that the piece appeared in the Washington Post itself, in its “Sunday Show” section the week of the 1991 Kennedy Center awards.

Titled “Honors? Who Cares Except D.C.?” and written by Paula Span, it put the honors in their proper scale. To a former Kennedy Center chairman’s testimonial that the award is internationally recognized as “the most significant award given to any performing artist in the United States,” Span responded that “the Kennedy Center Honors are deeply irrelevant, an apparently pleasant event that simply doesn’t count for much.”

Span beat me to the punch on every count, noting that the show almost never wins its time slot when broadcast; that the rest of the press largely ignores the show; that it’s a crass attempt to raise money for the Kennedy Center, not to honor artists; and that it honors “the kind of art Washington can get behind, the sort that doesn’t offend William Dannemeyer or Tipper Gore.” The complete list of past honorees screams safe as mother’s milk, the sort of artists that Boeing, this year’s “Exclusive Underwriter of the Kennedy Center Honors Gala Luncheon and Supper,” loves to fly with.

Span doesn’t excoriate her newspaper for its hard-sell coverage, but she does the next best thing, ridiculing the Washingtonians who attend. She writes:

You can see why Washingtonians, at least the ones who travel in black-tie circles, consider it such a hot ticket. Power and glamour ordinarily are little intertwined in Washington, where a treasured dinner guest might be Richard Cheney and Henry Kissinger was actually considered a sexy guy. Any three movie stars testifying before a House subcommittee can stop traffic on Capitol Hill. But the KenCens mean that at least once a year, Washington gets to be every bit as twinkly as some of those other cities. Look, there’s Anjelica! Yes, Kate’s wearing pants! Isn’t that Marvin Hamlisch?


Span’s piece isn’t on the Post Web site, an oversight I’ll see if I can correct. For a brief but withering assessment of the Kennedy Center Honors by Trey Graham in Washington City Paper, scroll to the bottom of this page. What’s my grudge against the Kennedy Center? It occupies the former home of Christian Heurich Brewing Co. What transgressive artist deserves a lifetime-achievement award but will never get his due from the KenCen? Send nominations to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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