White House Correspondents’ Dinner: Are Celebrities Really Persona Non Grata at D.C.’s ‘Nerd Prom’?

“Most White House correspondents don’t like the fact that celebrities come,” former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin tells TheWrap about the annual party in Washington

In recent years, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has propelled the people who are supposed to cover those in the spotlight into their own.

TV news reporters and anchors rub elbows with celebrities and D.C.’s swath of socialites at the  spectacle, which takes place Saturday. Instead of a tribute to the never-ending grind of a political correspondent, the dinner has become a cesspool of group selfies, Svedka and self-celebration.

It shouldn’t be that way, however, says former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin, who was so intrigued — and turned off — by the self-indulgence of it all, he quit his job in 2014, seeking to shine a light on D.C’s biggest night. Or as the film he made dubs it, “Nerd Prom.”

“Optics do matter in journalism, and making sure that your readers trust you and believe that you’re sort of sticking it to the powerful does matter,” he told TheWrap in an interview this week.

Hollywood also has a starring role at the Nerd Prom, where stars like Katharine McPhee show up on the red carpet championing Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren as her favorite White House Correspondent.

If only Greta covered the White House.

There’s plenty more where that comes from in a wide-ranging interview with Gavin on the unholy marriage between Hollywood, politicos, and of course, the media.

TheWrap: How did the cushy connection between reporters, the powerful and Hollywood evolve into this dinner?
Gavin: One of the criticisms showed in the film is that the press core is too cozy with the powerful. I don’t disagree with that. I also think it’s totally disingenuous to single out this week for that because that’s what happens every other day of the year. The only difference is, usually the other events have no cameras –CSPAN’s cameras aren’t on. Even if a reporter can argue they’re not corrupted by this, optics do matter in journalism, and making sure that your readers trust you and believe that you’re sort of sticking it to the powerful, does matter. I think what you see coming through CSPAN’s cameras [at the dinner] certainly doesn’t convey that. On the one hand I totally buy the coziness argument, but the only thing I’ll push back on with people like Tom Brokaw, or whomever, is this happens all the time. People from NBC have private, off the record dinners with cabinet officials, which probably looks just as cozy.

The dinner is surrounded by media stars posing for selfies with politicians and celebs. Should they be more tactful?
If you’re a reporter, you shouldn’t be taking selfies with the Defense Secretary. My real issue isn’t so much with the dinner or the parties or the corporate sponsorships. It’s more that Washington has made this our biggest event every year. Both the fourth estate and politicians both have approval ratings in the teens. For us to hold up this event as our biggest moment of the year, even though we admit it’s kind of unseemly and kind of gross in some respects, and then not care and say, “it’s just a dinner, you know, who cares?” We have to care, we have to take better pride in our talent. Also if you want to get those approval ratings up, you have to start somewhere. It’s not as if reporters and politicians have to turn the other way in the hallway when they see each other, but a lot of reporting is about earning your readers’ trust, and if I was a reader and saw a selfie of a reporter and a politician, it would kind of make it seem like they’re all on the same team and that the reporting is a facade.

In the film, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Patrick Duffy, and JC Chasez are asked who their favorite correspondents are — with none of them having a clue. Katharine McPhee answers Greta Van Susteren, who is an anchor for Fox News, not a White House correspondent. Is Hollywood just there for the cameras and booze?
Hollywood’s been coming since the beginning, dating back to the 40s and 50s, but it’s certainly ramped up. Some celebrities genuinely care about public policy. Some celebrities just like coming to see the president and something different from their world. If you talk to most White House Correspondents, they actually really don’t like the fact that celebrities come, just because it does take away from what they try to make the dinner about, which is supporting the association and the scholarships. Nowadays, it’s really the media companies bringing stars to show them off to their sponsors. If you’re Google, and you get Scarlett Johansson, that might make Yahoo bringing Sanjaya not seem as cool. It’s a way to impress your advertisers to show where you fall in the pecking order. In terms of celebrities, them brushing up on stuff — that’s kind of a no-brainer. If you’re going to have dinner at a friends house, you quickly make sure you know their kids’ name before walking in the door. For the WHCD, more importantly, you should know what the dinner is really about. Maybe that seems like a lot to ask of them, but it also seems really reasonable.

Is the dinner a microcosm for the continuing thinning of the line between the Hollywood, politics and media Mosh Pit?
It certainly seems the connection between the East Coast and the West Coast is getting stronger. You see that in D.C.’s increasing fascination with Hollywood [in the form of fundraising] and Hollywood’s fascination with D.C., be it this weekend or the proliferation of Washington-based shows. Then when you look into the business of Washington, from cable companies, to Silicon Valley — there’s so many issues that Washington grapples with that are important to the West Coast, that they have to be involved, and they have to lobby. That’s why, when you look at the roster of companies involved in this weekend — from Google, to Yahoo, to Facebook, to Netflix — all these companies play a part in public policy and have multi-billion dollar legislation being debated on Capitol Hill. So for them, this weekend is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel; one-stop shopping to prove that you’re not some disconnected tech firm out on the West Coast who doesn’t want to play in the game.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner begins at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on CSPAN. And Gavin — well, he wasn’t invited. But his film’s available online.