The White House Correspondents Dinner is upon us. Nominally aboutraising funds for journalism scholarships and celebrating the hard work of the press corp, the affair has metastasized into a weekend of hobnobbing, shrimp eating and celebrity spotting, which has all been documented in a new film called “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week.” Bob speaks with Patrick Gavin, the writer, director, and star of the film.
BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. Spring is here and with it so many familiar spectator events: The Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the Pope’s Easter message in St. Peters Square and, most important of all -- or at least most self-important -- the White House Correspondents Dinner. Nominally about raising funds for journalism scholarships and celebrating the hard work of the press corps, it has metastasized into a weekend of hobnobbing, shrimp eating and celebrity spotting -- all documented in a new film called “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week.” Once filmmaker Patrick Gavin was himself a political journalist, who had spent more than one April Saturday at that dinner, chasing down the stories wherever they led him.
Gavin: I was that person on the red carpet asking really dumb questions of celebrities or politicians. Yeah, that was me. BOB: Well it was not as though it was trivial questions, of insignificant personages. I mean, it was not as though you were flagging down Kim Kardashian -- oh wait a second, yes it was.
GAVIN: Kim are you excited for your first White House Correspondent's Dinner?
KARDASHIAN: I'm very excited.
GAVIN: Yeah, most celebrities will stop and talk to you, but she was at a different level. She just kind of did a drive by and moved on.
BOB: the Correspondents Dinner is a charity event. It raises money for a good cause: scholarships to journalism school for promising students, and 100 thousand dollars worth of tuition is paid for that night, which is great --
GAVIN: But it just seems to me that if you're paying your CEO the executive director of the White House Correspondent's Association. more than you're giving away in scholarships, that's a bad radio no matter how you look at it. And sadly it actually went down this year. So, reaching out to all these news organizations that do throw parties, from CNN, to Yahoo, to the New Republic, and just saying "what about 5 grand? 10 grand?" They don't even bother to ask, which struck me as really odd.
BOB: But let us not dwell on dollars and cents, Patrick. I mean... to sit there in the audience and watch the hush fell over the crowd when yet another young journalist is honored …
Would those of you in the ballroom please wait just a moment? In fairness to the guests that we have here tonight, those of you in the back who continue to talk, made it impossible for our scholarship students to even hear their names called.
Bob: That was ABC’s Ann Compton. Her head just about exploding at the rudeness and indifference. You also point out something I witnessed and was appalled by myself in the George W. Bush administration, Ray Charles performing one of his last major public appearances and uh… ugh…
[Charles singing with loud overtalk]
BOB: The subject is kind of shooting fish in a barrel and I can say that comfortably because last year, we took out a shotgun and did that very thing. And when Mark Leibovich book, “This Town” came out, he went after the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. And yet, I’m quite sure, this weekend it’s going to be the biggest one ever. People acknowledge the problem and then they, you know, put on their tuxedo or gown.
GAVIN: Ehh. I do think it'll be curved. I think that there's from Tom Brokaw, to Mark's book, to this movie, to just general criticism -- it does seem as if it's becoming a lot less cool to kind of be a fanboy for this weekend, when people sort of say yeah, it's this kind of gross weekend, but it is what it is, so what. That's a level of cynicism I don't think i'm at yet. This town has a 10% approval rating, politicians and reporters alike, and for people to say that our biggest moment is kind of gross, but we shouldn't care, that was very very discomforting for me to hear that.
BOB: Well, if we’ve established that the White House Correspondents weekend is about almost everything but White House Correspondents, what pray tell, now that you have immersed yourself in this subject, is it all about?
GAVIN: I think at this point it's just a big business conference. It's a way for people in Washington to sell themselves, to sell their brand, to establish where they fall in the pecking order. For people outside of Washington, it's probably the single best opportunity to lobby and influence. So it's certainly moved a long way away from White House Correspondents, and it's basically turned into a multi multi million dollar business opportunity for lots of people.
BOB: What would you do to restore some semblance of relevance and dignity and let’s just say, ethical soundness, to the whole affair?
GAVIN: You could get rid of the red carpet, you could strengthen the scholarship program by asking people from news organizations to contribute more to it. you know I think the president should skip it once in a while. You know the only reason that most of those celebrities are there is for the opportunity to see the president. They're flying to DC not knowing whether the president is gonna show up? They're probably not gonna come to DC. You know, so that's the real micro stuff. But i think that on the macro level, i don't blame the dinner, I don't even necessarily blame people throwing parties. If this was number 9 on our list of exciting events every year and the first 8 were the passage of a really meaningful legislation or a climate change rally or a tea party event or something that kind of honed more closely to what this city was about, I would have no problem with this dinner, even in its current manifestation. I just don't like how people have made it our number one event.
BOB: Patrick, thank you so much.
Bob: Patrick Gavin, until recently was a reporter for Politico, he is the writer, director, and star of “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week.” You can find the film at Nerd Prom the movie dot com.