Nerd Prom Is Broken, But So Is Our Political Culture

It's time for another White House Correspondent's Dinner, and it's going to be just as atrocious as the last one. But, the dinner isn't the real problem.

White House Correspondents Dinner

Patrick Gavin, a former Politico reporter who is now the director of  the documentary Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Weekis the latest person to acknowledge something that one thinks would be blindingly obvious to anyone outside Washington, D.C., namely the fact that the annual White House Correspondents Dinner has become an absurd travesty:

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway—now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America).

Something has to change.

I’ve watched the whole rise of the weekend over the last decade, as it sprawled increasingly out of control and increasingly out of touch—first as a blogger at FishbowlDC and a reporter at the Washington Examiner, then later as a reporter here at politico. Last year I left my job at politico to work on a documentary about White House Correspondents’ Week in Washington, D.C., the year’s most momentous week in arguably the world’s most powerful city. I thought I knew what I’d find, but even I was surprised—much of what I discovered wasn’t pretty. The week acts as a tacky and vainglorious self-celebration at a time when most Americans don’t think Washingtonians have much to be commended for.

Gavin goes on to put forward a few recommendations for changes that would make the occasion “better,” some of which, such as the idea that maybe the President doesn’t need to attend this thing every year, sound like a pretty good idea. Even if those changes are adopted, though, they aren’t likely to address what is really wrong with the so-called “Nerd Prom,” because what’s really wrong with it is symptomatic of what is wrong with the entire political media culture. That culture was captured quite well by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, the author of This Town, a book released last year that was essentially a scathing attack on pretty much everything about the political world inside the beltway. As Leibovich put it, the dinner is “a level of self-congratulation and self-celebration and so forth that can be very, you know, somewhat at odds with the mood of the country and how people view the media.” Leibovich lays much of the blame on the extent to which journalists have become celebrities in the decades since All The President’s Men. While that is certainly part of the issue, I don’t think it’s the sole cause for what D.C. has become in recent decades. One important factor, of course, has been the extent to which Hollywood and Washington, with some help from New York City of course, have developed what can only be called a bizarre incestuous relationship wherein people in both communities seek to cozy up to “famous” people solely for the purpose of being seen with famous people. That relationship existed in the past, of course, most prominently during the Kennedy and Reagan Administrations, but it really didn’t start becoming a big thing until the Clinton Administration, and it was during that period that the custom of media companies inviting famous or, in many cases, famous for a moment, people to the Correspondents Dinner. This practice has gotten so out of hand in recent years that various media companies seek to one-up each other with celebrity invitations, and news networks such as CNN and MSNBC feature “red carpet” coverage that starts two hours before the dinner as if this were the Academy Awards. It is self-absorption that borders on the pretentious and the annoying, and it has now become such a big thing that it is impossible to watch cable news or log on to Twitter on the day of the dinner without seeing virtually non-stop coverage of what, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than a trade association dinner.

There’s nothing per se wrong with the White House Correspondent’s Association holding an annual dinner just like many other voluntary and professional associations do, and indeed there are some things that go on at the event that are worthwhile such as scholarships given to aspiring journalism students and awards to reporters who have excelled in the field. The dinner itself has been going on since 1920 and for a long time it was just like any other professional banquet. In the past several decades, though, it has become perverted into a festival of vain self-absorption and self-congratulatory nonsense in which reporters and politicians gather together and seemingly forget for an evening that large segments of the American public looks upon them with disdain, and that events like “Nerd Prom” only reinforce those opinions. Things have only gotten worse as the event has turned into a media circus since the media coverage tends to create the incentives for the worst aspects of the event.

Removing the cameras, though, is unlikely to change anything, because what’s wrong with “Nerd Prom” is the same thing that’s wrong with the rest of our political culture. It is merely a reflection of the self-absorbed narcissism that characterizes much of the political world in Washington, D.C. as well as the worst aspects of the political media. Unless and until that changes, nothing is going to change at all.

 

FILED UNDER: General, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jeremy R says:

    Gavin goes on to put forward a few recommendations for changes that would make the occasion “better,” some of which, such as the idea that maybe the President doesn’t need to attend this thing every year, sound like a pretty good idea.

    The beltway media would surely punish whichever president broke off that tradition and first stopped attending. I remember they gave Obama grief over his not attending their Gridiron Club dinner his first couple years in office.

  2. Anonne says:

    Hollywood for ugly people…

  3. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    For a while, the tradition was the press took shots at the president, who at the end did their own little routine. It showed that the president could take a joke, and could tell one.

    But since Obama became president, it’s turned into a demonstration of how well the White House and the press corps can cooperate to go after their political enemies. Which means that it’s like every other day of the year, but in formal wear.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    But since Obama became president, it’s turned into a demonstration of how well the White House and the press corps can cooperate to go after their political enemies. Which means that it’s like every other day of the year, but in formal wear.

    So, Barack Obama ruined everything by needling Donald Trump at the press dinner in 2011?

    The context of President Obama’s needling of Trump is sort of important. After many months of being subjected to Trump’s Birther obsession, Obama released his long-form State of Hawaii birth certificate, he then joked that Trump could now focus on the serious issues, from whether the moon landing actually happened to “where are Biggie and Tupac?”

    I thought that, as a zinger, it was very mild, the overly egotistical Trump however, was not amused. By almost any normal and reasonable standard, Obama’s remarks hardly constituted going after one’s political enemies … Now, if he had made reference to Trump’s comb over …

  5. DrDaveT says:

    White House Correspondents’ Week in Washington, D.C., the year’s most momentous week

    Sweet Jesu, is it really possible for a respected journalist to be that out of touch with reality? There’s your real problem…

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    Interesting post, Doug. Thanks for letting me know about Nerd Prom and This Town — they’re now on my To Do list.

  7. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @al-Ameda: It’s cute how you think it started and ended with the Trump idiocy. But as I said, it started before that, and it’s continued since.

  8. EddieInCA says:

    I’ll let others decide whether or not it should continue.

    But…

    Obama killed.

    KILLED.

  9. Tillman says:

    Interesting how my Twitter feed was full of such a dichotomy: on the one hand, lots of red-carpetish-politico ugly nerd types canoodling in the halls of power and putting to rest the idea of adversarial-to-power journalism; on the other hand, Baltimore.

  10. Mikey says:

    It is self-absorption that borders on the pretentious and the annoying

    “Borders on?”

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    @al-Ameda: It’s cute how you think it started and ended with the Trump idiocy. But as I said, it started before that, and it’s continued since.

    Oh look, you failed to point to an example of anything other than the Trump idiocy that might be the cause of the so-called ruination of the annual White House press dinner.

  12. Mr. Prosser says:

    The use of the term nerds to identify these yahoos is highly insulting to us nerds.

  13. James P says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Really! How dare the President mock people who launch vile attacks against him. He’s so, so… uppity.

    No worries Jenos. A person such as yourself sees Omama up there looking like James Bond, and it grates at you. We get it.

  14. Surreal American says:

    @James P:

    Aren’t you just a tad out of character?

  15. Surreal American says:

    Anyway, my preferences are for the White House Correspondents Association to discontinue these dinners, for D.C politicians to work on genuine rapport (which last I looked was not synonymous with abject surrender), and for the Washington press to rediscover actual journalistic principles and practices.

  16. James P says:

    @Surreal American:

    I realized that being a prick is what was making my pee pee hurt, and I do not like it when my pee pee hurts. I think the ointment that the doctor gave me might be helping too. I hope so.

  17. James P says:

    I’ll ignore your cheap aroma
    And your little-bo-peep diploma
    I’ll just put you in a coma

  18. Surreal American says:

    @James P:

    Frank Zappa FTW!

  19. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @al-Ameda: Did you even NOTICE that you brought up Trump, not me, and all I did was agree that it was a particularly good example?

    Here’s Jay Leno from 2010. The year before the Trump fun. Digs at Boehner, George Dubya Bush, Michael Steel, Republicans. Obama? Barely just a little gentle teasing.

    Next year, for honesty, the Press Corps should just give out commemorative knee pads.

  20. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    @al-Ameda: Did you even NOTICE that you brought up Trump, not me, and all I did was agree that it was a particularly good example?

    Not exactly – you’re asserting it was extremely negative, and as such has contributed to ruining the press dinner. I disagree completely.

    Jay Leno … The year before the Trump fun. Digs at Boehner, George Dubya Bush, Michael Steel, Republicans. Obama? Barely just a little gentle teasing.

    First, Leno is a Republican, and second, that was pretty tame stuff. I still don’t see how anyone concludes that either Obama’s or Leno’s humor at that dinner was out-of-line or unduly negative, or has somehow spoiled the festivities.

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @al-Ameda: I seem to recall a lot of people thought this performance was brilliant and magnificent. Has there been the like since Obama took office?

  22. Tony W says:

    @al-Ameda: Right wingers need Mr. Obama to be an “affirmative action” president because otherwise a black man got there on his own merits. Not only does this destroy their preconceived notions about the world, it also highlights their own failure to do anything comparable.

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Tony W: Do you actually believe your own BS, or are you just trolling with that? I really can’t tell.