A White House Correspondent’s Documentary Is Surprisingly Bad-Ass

Patrick Gavin's new film asks uncomfortable questions about Washington's most glamorous night.
A White House Correspondent’s Documentary Is Surprisingly Bad-Ass
Actress Katharine McPhee at a party during WHCA weekend. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Gavin.

Back when he covered the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner as a reporter for Politico, Patrick Gavin says, he was “king of the clown question,” asking attendees things like “Are you excited to meet Justin Bieber?” Part of making his new documentary about the event, Nerd Prom, was, Gavin says, deciding to trade his “dunce cap for a reporter’s hat.”

What he found wasn’t pretty. Filmed over the last year, Nerd Prom methodically dissects the purported rationales for the gala—April 25 this year—and the glamorous parties that surround it. The dinner itself is supposed to be about celebrating White House correspondents, though few of the celebrity guests can name one. (“I’m not going to answer that question,” Glee star Matthew Morrison says in the movie before venturing, “I do love a little Bill O’Reilly.”) The WHCA hands out scholarships to journalism students, but the amount of money is puny. And though the association is a group of journalists with access to power, nobody wanted to allow in Gavin and his camera.

Familiar with his coverage at Politico, I expected Gavin’s film to be a celebration. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed, very funny biopsy for diagnosing what’s wrong with the dinner, which the patient barely survives. Here the first-time director talks about his transition from the event’s chronicler to its critic.

How many of the parties you showed up at let you in?

It was about fifty-fifty. In the past, I’d never had any problems because I think I had a track record of asking dumb, stupid questions that weren’t threatening or probing or made anybody look bad. As long as the coverage is pretty superficial and shallow, it’s fine.

I expected more of an homage, but your film turns out to be a pretty harsh look.

That was my journey, too. It’s not this hagiography of the weekend. It just became really clear to me the more I worked on it that there was a much better story to be told. I do hope it’s fair and balanced.

If the dinner isn’t really about its stated goals, whom do you think it benefits?

At this point, it’s about business, it’s about getting your name out there. Obviously, they do give away scholarship money, but what you see is a bunch of people trying to glom onto it to advance their own careers.

That’s what disappoints me: In a town like DC that’s supposed to have lofty ideas, our biggest moment shouldn’t be about that. I try to make clear that I really don’t have a problem with the dinner, but I do think greater prominence should be put on White House correspondents and access for journalists. If there was another event that was about showing great stuff [journalists do], I would have no problem with the dinner.

Some of the behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty surprising, like when Capitol File editor Elizabeth Thorp says, “Hashtag: Suck it,” about people who want to bring guests to a party.

A lot of trash-talking happens in a setting like this. We tried to soften the blows where we could. The celebrities I don’t have a lot of sympathy for. It seems like such a no-brainer coming to this thing to be able to name a White House correspondent, but they also seemed to think I was wrong for even asking the question.

What are you going to do next?

If this does well, I’d like to do another one. If there’s not an audience, I have no idea: I’ll have to go crawling back to Politico or something.

Watch the “Nerd Prom” trailer:

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.