It only took about a year from when the term "nerd prom" emerged for it to be discredited. In May of 2010, the Washington Post wrote:
It's time to concede that the White House Correspondents' Association dinner doesn't have much to do with the White House and its correspondents anymore. Forget about that cute, self-deprecating "nerd prom" image — sorry, but nerds can't get into the parties anymore.
What changed is probably what changed in the White House in 2009 — suddenly there was a president that people (read: celebrities) wanted to see and hang out with. The WHCD offered a perfect opportunity. Media companies that had access finally had something that Hollywood wanted. And celebrities signed up in droves for the opportunity to meet the coolest guy in town, Barack Obama. We can extrapolate a bit further from this, although this is speculation. Celebrities showing up in Washington, D.C., was unusual (at least for people who were new to town since the Clinton Administration). Sitting down for dinner with schlubs from the Post (and, ahem, The Atlantic) was even weirder. To those celebrities, this was a probably seen as a dinner held by a bunch of nerds. Their prom, if you will.
But what happened next is that media personalities embraced the term. What the Post called "self-deprecating," what Politico's Roger Simon this morning claims is somehow meant as an insult, is really a humblebrag, a way of saying, "I'm going to this thing that is so dorky because everyone who goes is such a brilliant nerd, and did I mention I am going to it." Also handy, it provides a bit of cover for those who might otherwise be criticized for going to an event just to kiss up to celebrities: "No, no, it's a total nerd event."
Let's look at just how nerdy this year's event is going to be. We've been compiling the announced attendees over the course of the week and categorized them by type and nerdiness to hopefully provide a portrait of the people in the room.
A necessary caveat: The people included on this list are only the people who've been announced as attending by the media outlets that bought tables at the event. It is 1) incomplete and 2) heavy on celebrity, because media companies know enough about the media to know that the media is only going to cover the people sitting at their tables if they include celebrities on the list. It's too bad that the media is so focused on celebrity, the media thinks, because otherwise the media could announce all of the non-celebrities the media wanted to invite but didn't because the media just loves celebrities too much. But, of course, the media could invite non-celebrities to attend. It could, for example, invite scientists or the reporters it employs or people who might enjoy an evening of jokes from Conan O'Brien and jokes from Barack Obama and so on. So while the people included in the data are overwhelmingly celebs — there's no reason they had to be. The media went ahead and invited a bunch of non-nerds to its Nerd Prom.