Known for laughs, the White House Correspondents' Dinner in DC highlights the risks of journalism

WASHINGTON — The White House Correspondents Association dinner — known for its fun despite Washington's hard knocks — took on a more serious tone this year when 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 world: A free press is a pillar, perhaps a pillar, of a free society, not the enemy,” Biden said in his speech.

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President and first lady Jill Biden, upon 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 employers and the US government. Some of the guests wore buttons with “Free Evan” written on them.

Also among the 2,600 people who attended the gala was Debra Tice, mother of Austin Tice, who has not been heard from since disappearing at a checkpoint in Syria in 2012. US officials say they are operating under the assumption that she is alive and working to try to took him home.

“Journalism is not a crime. Evan and Austin must be released immediately along with every other American detained overseas,” Biden said. “I promise, I work hard to bring them home.”

The Bidens also made a beeline for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist who was held in Russia for nearly 10 months last year before being released in a prisoner swap. Griner attended with his wife, Cherelle, as guests of CBS News.

“This time last year we prayed for you, Brittney,” Biden told the basketball star.

The annual black tie dinner draws many celebrities and media moguls to Washington, with parties being held all over the capital. Among those attending were actor Liev Schreiber, singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, a model and television personality.

Actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the dinner with a videotape about the importance of a free and independent press, calling journalists “the ally of the people”. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat on stage with comedian Roy Wood Jr., a “The Daily Show” correspondent, who is a featured entertainer.

While Biden spent most of his speech focusing on press freedom issues, he did take time to criticize some of his most outspoken political critics. The opportunity was familiar and comfortable for Biden, who attended several dinners as Barack Obama's vice president. The Washington event returned last year after being sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Biden is the first president in six years to accept the invitation after Donald Trump avoided the event while in office.

But this year, he is coming not only as commander-in-chief but as a presidential candidate.

He began his streak with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, taking direct aim at the recently passed bill passed by Republicans that would have lifted the debt ceiling in exchange for a series of budget cuts, including some of Biden's major legislative milestones.

“The last time the Republicans voted for something that was unfortunate, it took 15 tries,” Biden said, referring to McCarthy's harrowing battle to become speaker in January.

And he didn't stop there, going after the Fox Corp Chairman. Rupert Murdoch about his age. “And you call me old?” he told the crowd.

Biden even made a few self-deprecating jokes, mostly around criticism about his age when he made his 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 crowd.

Wood, who took the stage after Biden, also focused attention on the president's age.

“We must be inspired by events in France. They rioted when the retirement age rose two years to 64 years,” said Wood. “Meanwhile in America, we had an 80-year-old man asking us for another four years.”