05.10.09

Why the Nerd Prom Matters

Think you know everything about the White House Correspondents' Dinner? Behind the glitz and the jokes, it's a chance for journalists to build relationships—and raise some money. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Between Twitter, C-SPAN, and today’s wall-to-wall news coverage of Obama roasting Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh, you already know everything that went down at last night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Or do you? As more than 3,000 of Washington’s finest cozied up to the media that cover them—when they weren’t gawking at Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Don Draper, and Chuck Bass—who knows exactly who said what to whom, exchanged business cards, were introduced by an unexpected common friend? You don’t know. That’s the point.

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It’s fashionable to deride the Correspondents’ Dinner—or “ Nerd Prom,” as it was dubbed on Twitter—but the fact is, such events can be damned useful. Perhaps not for the person sitting beside Tom Cruise, unless you’re looking for the latest news on Thetan-spotting, but for reporters working a beat and juniors coming up in the ranks, these events provide a great opportunity for meeting, greeting and making an impression. Will it lead to a headline-grabbing Pulitzer-winning scoop? Probably not, but the relationship begun—or facilitated—on that evening just might.

Don’t take my word for it—though, as a veteran of a whopping two WHCD weekends, I can attest to its connection-making and background-getting value—take it from someone who has been “attending these dinners since the 1980s”: “It can be very valuable, but only if you strategically invite your guests,” says a source, who warns against counting on the big names to dish over dinner. “Lower-level staff people appreciate the invite more, and often show it later.”

As for the bellyaching over journalists being “too cozy” with those they cover, another D.C.-based reporter disagrees: “If anyone thinks that keeping sources and journalists in separate corners is going to improve either journalism or government, they’re fooling themselves. Journalism, like in every other aspect of life, is about relationships. This weekend helps feed that and it’s up to the journalists to be smart enough—which most, but not all, are—to not be co-opted by the process.”

Is that a risk worth taking? I say yes, my photo with Sherri Shepherd notwithstanding. That photo, and others like it, is not the ends of events like this, it is the means. Put it this way: How many of last night’s big fish, or the minnows swimming with them, would have attended a somber, decorous, business-casual, Ashton-less event? The stars serve as glittery, flawlessly complexioned bait, enticing those fish into one big pond. So why not get along swimmingly?

You know the reasons, and may even have blustered about them from a tux yourself before: "It seems to me that the hobnobbing between journalists and government officials can create a we're-all-in-this familiarity that can impede (to some degree, if a small one) independent, aggressive journalism," frets one multi-year veteran of glittering DC events. "Enterprising journalists from non-MSM outlets can at these functions talk to sources who otherwise wouldn't give them the time of day and pick up info that can lead to good stories. But that probably comes at the overall cost of too much chumminess." Said another longtime press corps colleague: " I do think the fascination with Hollywood celebrities is a bit over the top, but it seems like a harmless byproduct of the dinner." (NB: There were numerous complaints with the White House Press Association itself, and how it uses star power to determine table placement: "If you don't bring a celebrity guest, you're relegated to a back table.")

For reporters working a beat and juniors coming up in the ranks, these events provide a great opportunity for meeting, greeting, and making an impression.

And let’s not ignore the other purpose of the dinner: Philanthropy. “What a lot of people tend to forget is that this event is a fundraiser!” says one White House beat reporter. “Having government and celebrity types attend helps sell tables and raise money for journalism scholarships, to keep bringing bright and promising students into this blighted industry.” What, you missed that through the blinding sparkle of Chace Crawford’s teeth? That’s OK—like everything else, it’s a tradeoff, from which quiet good can come.

In journalism, as in everything else, “quiet” is a virtue oft-overlooked. It’s the difference between a screaming headline (Who remembers “Lipstick on a Pig”?) and the grunt work of investigative reports over weeks, months, and sometimes years. But “quiet” is how scoops happen, how information is revealed and—more to the point—uncovered. (“Quiet” also helps when you’re standing next to Important People having Important Conversations. Says one of my sources: “I got a whole lot last night from listening in [and being invited into] conversations that my well-placed [White House] source [someone I actually know] was having with peers.”) Listening is a quiet, but essential, skill.

Ultimately, behind the glitz and the jokes and the star-studded ZOMG I JUST MET JON HAMM!!!!-style tweets, the mingling at these events is all about relationships, about breaking down the reporter-subject barrier and interacting as people.

That doesn’t mean swearing undying loyalty forever—far from it. Says one source: “A big part of being a journalist is being able to look your sources in the face and then kick them in the ass, and vice versa.” It does, however, mean having that option. And to get there, you actually have to interact as people first.

Once that happens, who knows where it can lead? I learned that lesson from Somali pirate hero Captain Richard Phillips and the guy who plays Rufus Humphrey on Gossip Girl. For more on that, view our star-studded photo gallery.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Katty Kay: Was Obama Funny Enough to Save the Correspondents' Dinner?

Xtra Insight: View our gallery of the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

Rachel Sklar is the former media editor for The Huffington Post and the author of A Stroke of Luck: Life, Crisis and Rebirth of a Stroke Survivor. She is working on Jew-ish , a humorous book about cultural identity. In the meantime, she works with media consulting firm Abrams Research, recently launched online micro-giving site Charitini, and Twitters up a storm. Follow her here.