Opinion: Nerd Prom

by Virginia Coyne

Former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin explains how his scathing behind-the-scenes look at the annual WHCA Dinner came to be.

By Patrick Gavin

Patrick Gavin.

Patrick Gavin.

When I began thinking about doing a documentary about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, I was primarily interested in creating a portrait of the event: what the dinner is, what happens there and why celebrities make the trek to Washington to attend. I still have the original list of questions I’d planned on asking my interview subjects, relatively empty ones such as “What is it like sitting next to the president on the dais?” or “What do you talk to him about?”

None of those questions or answers made it into the final film.

As I dug deeper into both the dinner and the nearly five days of hoopla surrounding it each Spring, a different story began to emerge. The event wasn’t just an interesting moment, it was THE moment in Washington each year. It’s prominence had grown to such a point that you’d be hard pressed to find anything to compare it to. 

In and of itself this might not be such a surprising thing, or even a bad thing. Hollywood has the Oscars, New Orleans has Mardi Gras. This is Washington’s signature event. However, what struck me as odd was that our extravaganza was quite out of sync with the values Washington is supposed to embody: public service, civic mindedness and government for and by the people; and I wasn’t convinced that this was something that most Americans knew about their nation’s capital.

If you had assumed that both the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner and its related parties are homages to the important work of White House correspondents, to the Association’s admirable scholarship program or to the timeless struggle to support journalistic access, you’ll find my documentary proves otherwise.

Nerd Prom One Sheet_NewVersionRecognition of White House correspondents garners nary a mention throughout the week of events, the Association’s scholarship program is not nearly as robust as it ought to be and, if supporting journalistic access was a guiding principle, it certainly didn’t apply to someone like myself, who was embarking on what I would consider a bit of journalism worth supporting: the first ever documentary about the White House Correspondents’ Association’s dinner and its surrounding events.

That no one had ever done a documentary on it before was a surprise to me, but it became very clear there was a reason: Trying to report on this weekend and uncover its true meaning in this town is not a simple task. I observed and covered the dinner for nearly ten years. When I worked at Politico, the Washington Examiner and mediabistro.com’s FishbowlDC, it wasn’t difficult getting access. To be honest, that was because I didn’t report on what was happening with any depth. I’d ask, say, Kerry Washington what she thought about first lady Michelle Obama’s fashion sense or Entourage’s Adrian Grenier to weigh in on the party scene here compared to Hollywood.

Hard hitting journalism it was not.

When I left Politico in May 2014 to work on this documentary and it became clear I was hoping to do some meaningful reporting on the outsized role this week has assumed, my access promptly dried up.

I soon came to appreciate that the focus in and around the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner was not on the advertised virtues. The question I then had to answer was “What exactly is this week all about?”

What I found throughout the making of “Nerd Prom” — and what I found troubling — was a town in full self-celebration mode at a time when Americans’ views of their nation’s capital are at historic lows. This discrepancy — that it exists and why — seemed like a story that most Americans didn’t know about. I thought someone should tell them. 

The film I ended up doing was not the one I set out to make, but it is one that I hope will start a much-needed conversation about whether Washington is living up to its ideals.

Patrick Gavin’s film is available for purchase this month at www.nerdpromthemovie.com.

Read the digital edition below.

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