President Joe Biden on Saturday used the traditionally lighthearted White House Correspondents’ Dinner to drive home the importance of the free press amid threats to democracy at home and abroad.
Biden opened his speech by recognizing the family of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in Russia in March and falsely accused of espionage.
“Evan went to Russia to shed light on the darkness that you escaped from years ago,” Biden said, praising Gershkovich’s “absolute courage.”
“Tonight our message is this: journalism is not a crime,” Biden told the applauding crowd.
The president also acknowledged dinner attendee and WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, and Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, a journalist who has been held captive in Syria for more than 10 years.
“Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with every American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” Biden urged. He also acknowledged Paul Whelan, the former U.S. marine currently detained in Russia, and promised Whelan’s family that neither he nor his administration would quit until Whelan was freed.
Biden eventually cut the somber atmosphere with a joke about his own age. “I believe in the First Amendment. Not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” the 80-year-old said to laughter from the crowd.
Biden’s speech included some of his favorite lines — “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative,” — peppered with digs at Republicans and the media, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Fox host Tucker Carlson, former CNN host Don Lemon and Twitter CEO Elon Musk.
Biden also had some barbs for Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“You all keep recording my approval rating is 42%. I think you don’t know this. Kevin McCarthy called me and asked, ‘Joe, what the hell is your secret?’” Biden said.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was back to its glitzy, elbow-rubbing glory this year for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The annual roast was canceled in 2020 and 2021, and the virus continued to cast a shadow over last year’s event, after the Gridiron Club dinner weeks earlier turned out to be a superspreader event.
But on Saturday, not even the threat of rainy weather could deter the crowd – some 2,600 journalists, politicians and celebrities filed into the ballroom at the Washington Hilton for the celebration, keynoted by comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood, Jr. The dinner got off to a rowdy start, as White House Correspondents’ Association President Tamara Keith tried to rein in attendees’ attention. “Don’t make me shout out, ‘Decorum!” Keith said in an effort to quiet the room for her opening remarks.
The awards and speech portion of the night opened with a video of actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke of the importance of the relationship between politicians and the press.
“Tonight’s event of course sends a powerful message that you don’t see politicians schmoozing and drinking with the press in Beijing or in Moscow or places like that — no, not at all,” Schwarzenegger said in the pre-taped recording, which included a cameo from actor Danny DeVito. “So even though you have asked questions that have annoyed the hell out of me, I remind myself always that you actually do the people’s work. You are the ally of the people, so never ever stop shining a light on the truth and informing the public.”
Keith emphasized that message in her remarks, noting that this was the first time in many years that both the president and the vice president attended the event, after former President Donald Trump declined to join during his time in office.
“Their presence is a statement and endorsement of the importance of a free and independent press — even if they don’t always like the questions we ask, or the way we ask them,” Keith said.
Keith also acknowledged the slew of recent media layoffs, including at her own company. “This is a challenging time for the news industry. My employer, NPR, just went through a painful round of layoffs and we are not alone. ABC, BuzzFeed, CBS, CNN, Gannett, Insider, Vice News Tonight, the Washington Post — I had to alphabetize the list because it’s so long,” Keith said. “These are difficult times in our industry. There is uncertainty and fear for what the future holds. But we are still here, so let’s stand proud,” she added later.
Wood later wrapped up the evening’s theme in his inimitable style: “Tonight is all about you all, journalists, the defenders of free speech. People who show truth to the world, from different mediums, from television, print, radio, whatever China let us see on TikTok.”
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