As a rewrite man and editor on Philadelphia’s Evening and Sunday Bulletin in the pre-Internet 1970s, I occasionally worked in the city room on the final Saturday night of the Miss America Pageant, 60 miles away in Atlantic City. After the 10 semi-finalists were announced, I wrote 10 different opening paragraphs and headlines as though each had won. Then the pairs were set in type.
Later, I went downstairs to the paper’s dank composing room, where I stood holding an open phone line to the Miss America press box. In those days reporters next to the Atlantic City Convention Hall stage got a heads-up on the winner before the big announcement on national television. Our man on the scene gave me the word. I told the compositor which headline and lead to use, and the page form was sent off to be plated.
A few minutes later, as Bert Parks warbled, “There She Is, Miss America,” the Bulletin‘s giant line of presses already were rolling with the big news stripped across the top of the late edition’s front page. At least in those days, it was big news.
John Oliver’s new HBO comedy show, “Last Week Tonight,” got a lot of recent attention for its takedown of the Miss America pageant. Part of that might have been surprise to many that the event even was still around. It’s just not as big a deal as it once was. But much of the notice was due to Oliver’s revelations that the show’s organizers essentially lied about the amount of scholarship for all those talented, fetching lasses.
The Miss America Organization said far and wide that $45 million of scholarship aid was in the kitty. What Oliver revealed was that the amount actually handed out was only a small fraction–maybe $4 million. The $45 million figure was simply the amount of impossible-to-all-use offers the pageant had from various sponsors and colleges. It was an immense deception, and one the organization did not rebut well in the wake of Oliver’s reporting.
Oliver’s staff had dug the damning data out of public Form 990 tax filings made by the Miss America Organization and its state affiliates. Here at the New To Seattle world headquarters, I have been known to leaf through such papers to discover locally trolling charities spending next to nothing raised on the lofty causes they espouse.
Oliver got me to wondering. Was the Washington State affiliate of the Miss America operation any better than the parent?
According to its latest tax return, for 2012, downloadable from here, the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization, based in the Seattle suburb of Puyallup, handed out exactly $4,059 in “grants and other assistance to individuals.” The return doesn’t say exactly, but I’m going to assume that all went out in scholarships. Because the amount was less than $5,000, under Internal Revenue Service rules the nonprofit didn’t have to identify the recipient(s).
A total sum of $4,059 in scholarships doesn’t seem like much to me. It covers less than one quarter for one full-time undergraduate at the University of Washington. And it’s a little hard to square with a statement on the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization’s website that the current Miss Washington, Kailee Dunn, is the “recipient of nearly $30,000 in Miss America scholarship assistance.” That might be over a number of years, and different years, and from various entities. But it seems pretty clear the way the Miss America empire does accounting is not the way I do.
That sum is also a little hard to square with data on the charities website of the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office. The hawkeyes in Olympia calculated that the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization charitable commitment–the percent of total expenses spent in furtherance of the stated charitable mission as opposed to certain overhead or fundraising–was a robust 94%.
I’d put the figure at less than 5%.
The Miss Washington Scholarship Organization tax return describes the mission as follows: “Provide mentorship, community service opportunities and college scholarships for young women between the ages of 13 to 24.” Note that “scholarships” is the last-listed objective, even though its singular is part of the organization’s very name. And there’s no mention of pageants.
Yet most of the $211,561 in total expenses went for staging pageants. Indeed, the amount listed just for “wardrobe/pageant prep”–$12,569–was more than three times the amount of presumed scholarship grants to individuals.
Olympia decided in its infinite wisdom that production of the Miss Washington pageant program book (stated cost: $29,710) was a charitable endeavor. Not to me.
Besides the $4,059 in individual aid, the return claimed another $4,794 was handed out to “governments and organizations in the United States.” Again, there was no detail. But I’ll give benefit of the doubt and count this as charitable mission money spent. It’s by adding these sums together and dividing into the total expenses that I derived my true charitable commitment figure of only 4.2%.
From anyone mentioned herein and readers, I invite comment below, to which I might respond. No need here to write 10 leads in advance.