What happens when reporters and Washington elites call a truce? They hold the White House Correspondents’ dinner, also known as the nerd prom. Back when the dinner started in 1921, about 50 people showed up. Now the guest list numbers in the thousands, and the festivities include a red carpet, and a slew of pre-parties and after-parties, and brunches. What once happened in a single night now unfolds over a week, but the guest of honor won’t be attending this year. Instead, President Trump will be holding a rally in Pennsylvania, although he’s not the only person criticizing the dinner. The other critics? The very journalists that the president finds himself at odds with, though it turns out that their beef with the nerd prom is not such new thing. Patrick Gavin is a journalist, filmmaker and the creator of the documentary “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Night.” Gavin spoke with Marketplace guest host Adriene Hill. An edited transcript of their interview follows.
Adriene Hill: So how has it changed? What happened to bring in all these parties and pre-parties, and how has the mission shifted because of it?
Patrick Gavin: Well, I think that people realize that there is a great opportunity to kind of glom onto this weekend. To not only throw parties to promote your brand or to promote your television shows or to thank your advertisers, but also to kind of show that you carry some moxie in this town. And that’s sort of what a lot of it is. You know, if you are Verizon, or if you are Comcast, or whatever it is, by throwing a big party, a big event, it’s a great way to show that you are a major player in a town in which that’s incredibly important.
Hill: I understand that as it became more and more of a scene, some big-name journalistic organizations pulled out. Is that right?
Gavin: That’s right. The New York Times has sort of barred its reporters from going to the actual dinner for a number of years, although they’re free to go to any parties they want. You know, BuzzFeed now really doesn’t go to the dinner. They throw their own party. This year, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg have canceled their after-party. So more and more, I think people are starting to see this weekend for what it is, which is not the greatest representation. I think that if you’re somebody watching this dinner on C-SPAN, and you see reporters and politicians and everybody who’s in this town, in theory, to serve the public, and you see them essentially patting themselves on the back and hobnobbing with celebrities, and I think it rings hollow with people back home. I mean, Washington D.C.’s approval rating is in the toilet. Reporters’ approval ratings are in the toilet. Congress, etc. etc.. So for us to, every year, have this Super Bowl where the whole point is to congratulate ourselves and to talk about how amazing we are and to go to these elegant parties, really just doesn’t sit well with how people outside D.C. view us. And I don’t think we represent ourselves very well.
Hill: How is the relationship between the Trump administration and the press now changing things this year for this event?
Gavin: Trump is certainly changing this weekend in unique ways. I mean, I think Vanity Fair and Bloomberg specifically are canceling their party, in large part, as a maybe-not-so-subtle protest against Trump’s attitude towards the press. But you know, from my vantage point, that’s a little bit too little too late. I mean, if the idea is that you want to protest presidents with bad press policies, you know, Obama had a pretty bad policy towards the press. And no one canceled their parties for him. So I think for everybody to all of a sudden get a bit of courage, maybe because it’s more popular to not like Donald Trump now, than it was under Obama…. You know, it seems a little bit too little too late. But I also think people who care about White House journalism never have a spotlight like they do that night, where millions of people are tuning in on TV or later online. And if they could use that attention, and all the celebrities and the paparazzi and the red carpet, to really try to educate people about what is the very important cause of White House journalism … then you could sort of make lemonade out of these lemons.
Hill: Do you think that could happen this year?
Gavin: No. It never does. But they ought to. I mean, it’s an important cause, and they’re the best people to do it.