White House Correspondents Dinner, famous for laughter, highlights the risks of journalism

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, known for its amusing if scathing attacks on Washington, took on a more solemn tone this year as President Joe Biden acknowledged several American journalists under siege in authoritarian countries around the world.

“We are here to send a message to the country and, frankly, to the whole world: a free press is a pillar, maybe a pillar of a free society, not an enemy,” said US President Joe Biden.

President and First Lady Jill Biden, arriving at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, met privately with the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since March. He was charged with espionage despite strong denials from his employer and the US government. Some of the guests wore buttons that said “Release Evan”.

Also among the 2,600 people who attended the gala was Debra Theis, mother of Austin Theis, who has not been heard from since disappearing at a Syrian checkpoint in 2012. try to bring him home.

“Journalism is not a crime. Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with all other Americans detained abroad,” Biden said.

“I promise you, I work like hell to get them home.”

The Bidens also targeted Britney Griner, the WNBA star and Olympian who was held in Russian custody for almost 10 months last year before being released in a prisoner exchange. Griner attended with her wife Sherel as guests of CBS News.

“This time last year, we were praying for you, Britney,” Biden told the basketball star.

The annual black tie dinner drew many celebrities and media moguls to Washington, and parties were held throughout the capital. Among those present were actor Liev Schreiber, singer John Legend and his model wife Chrissy Teigen.

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the dinner with a pre-recorded video about the importance of a free and independent press, calling journalists “allies of the people.” Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat on stage with comedian Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent for The Daily Show who was the main entertainer.

Although Biden devoted much of his speech to the issue of press freedom, he took the time to strike at some of his most outspoken political critics. The case is both familiar and convenient for Biden, who attended several dinners as Vice President Barack Obama. The Washington DC event returned last year after being put on hold for the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Biden was the first president in six years to accept the invitation after Donald Trump avoided the event while in office.

But this year he came not only as commander in chief, but also as a presidential candidate.

He started his punchline with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, directly targeting a recent Republican bill that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for a series of budget cuts, including some of Biden’s key legislative advances.

“The last time the Republicans voted for something bad, it took 15 attempts,” Biden said, referring to the terrible struggle McCarthy endured to become Speaker in January.

Biden even made a couple of self-deprecating jokes, mostly related to criticism of his age, as he filed a second bid for re-election. “I believe in the First Amendment, and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he told the roaring crowd.

Wood, who took the stage after Biden, also drew attention to the president’s age.

“We should be inspired by the events in France. They rebelled when the retirement age was raised by two years to 64,” Wood said.

“Meanwhile in America, we have an 80-year-old man who is begging us for four more years.”