WASHINGTON -- What's the most important thing that happens at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner? Ask the people in charge, and they'll probably tell you it's the scholarships given to promising college students with money raised from the event.
It's an awfully nice defense against the charge of over-the-top debauchery in a town that doesn't deserve to celebrating itself. It's also not true.
Patrick Gavin quit his job as a reporter covering the dinner for Politico to work on “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” which looks past the glitz and glamour of one of the most well-publicized events in Washington to “lift the lid on what really goes on behind the scenes.”
In the film, Jeff Dufour, a former columnist for The Hill and the Washington Examiner, says the student scholarship presentations seem to be the least important aspect of the night for many of the dinner’s attendees -- a fact “that does not reflect well on the people in the room.”
A clip from the movie shows Ann Compton, a longtime former White House correspondent for ABC News, pleading with the crowd at a recent dinner. "Those of you in the back who continue to talk made it impossible for our scholarship students to even hear their names called," she chided. The full documentary, which you can order here, shows the pattern repeated year after year.
Students who've been honored at the event in the past declined to complain. Ashleigh Joplin, who was honored in 2013 along with Monterroza, said the scholarship recipients' moment in the spotlight was relatively brief.
“It happened and then it was gone," she said. "I can see how it can be said that it’s a 'nerd prom.' It kind of gives the illusion that it was more about celebrities, politicians and political lawmakers -- giving them a reason to come together and socialize."
Joplin said that if the attendees were being rude, she didn’t notice, because of the significance of the moment. She also noted that audience members seemed warm and genuine when they congratulated the recipients.
“I felt so encouraged and proud of what I did, just having these people that I see from afar and on television tell me that I did a good job,” she said. “It was still one of the most humbling and inspiring moments.”
The event now lasts about five days, and last year, around 2,600 people were at the dinner and at other parties and functions associated with it. Among the guests were a slew of Hollywood celebrities. This year’s guest list is similarly full of boldface names.
“The dinner was just a crazy experience,” Glynn Hill, who was honored at the dinner last year, told The Huffington Post. “It's very Hollywood. A lot of politicians [are] trying to take pictures with any one of the plethora of celebrities there -- like Cam Newton, Adrian Peterson, Kevin Hart were in line next to me. Al Sharpton and Lupita [Nyong'o] were behind me.”
Brina Monterroza, a 2013 White House Correspondents' Association scholar, said that she felt the recipients got the respect, time and attention they deserved from the audience.
“Of course you’re going to have your occasional people [who are] in their own world,” she said. “But... for the most part, everybody was supportive and cheering as people went across the stage.”
Hill, who is currently a senior at Howard University, said the people sitting closest to the stage seemed to pay attention to this portion of the event.
“Even talking to other award winners, a lot of people in the crowd seemed interested in the awards presentation -- especially since so many of them are greeting and congratulating you on your way back to your seat,” he said. “After I got offstage, I was talking to Katie Couric and my state senator. Lupita and Jill Scott were smiling.”
All of the former recipients expressed gratitude for their awards, but Hill said the recipients didn't feel like they were a major focus of the event except for the moments when they were actually walking across the stage.
“There's a bunch of things they [the White House Correspondents' Association] do for us behind the scenes,” he said. “But at the dinner, people are really just about drinking and taking pictures -- outside of the presentations.”
Monterroza expressed a similar sentiment.
“It used to be this big event where all these journalists come in," she said. "Now it’s just journalists and celebrities partying [it] up."
The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, according to Politico, began in 1921 as a fairly intimate affair with only 50 attendees. This year, the association received 1,132 more ticket requests than the Hilton ballroom will be able to accommodate, according to an association memo obtained by HuffPost.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that Compton's speech was last year.