Journalists gathered at the Washington Hilton to celebrate free press with both top elected officials such as the President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. (AP Photo/ Carolyn Kaster)

By Ashleigh Fields,
Special to the AFRO

Each year the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) honors the top journalism and media professionals in America who continue to break the mold.

“The free press is a pillar– maybe the pillar of a free society–not the enemy,” said President Biden in his remarks at the dinner. “Tonight, our message is this: journalism is not a crime.”

The 2023 event marked the first time since 2016 that the president, vice president and their spouses were all in attendance at the dinner. 

Most of his speech was focused on upholding freedom of the press, which included calls for the release of Wall Street Journal Moscow correspondent Evan Gershkovich and freelance journalist Austin Tice, who are both being detained abroad for their reporting. 

Before turning the mic over to the comedian Roy Wood Jr., Biden managed to crack a few jokes about Fox News in addition to respectfully saluting the Black press for their work past and present. Biden also singled out The Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine for their raw and revealing reports chronicling the murder of Emmett Till. 

He also quoted Ida B. Wells, post-Civil War Reconstruction era investigative journalist and human rights advocate who was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, citing her views about turning the light of truth upon wrongs as, “the sacred charge of a free press.” 

There was also a powerful moment of recognition as Biden acknowledged the late Gwen Ifill, a broadcast and print journalist who moderated his first debate for vice president. 

Ifill covered eight presidential campaigns over a 25-year span and was the first African-American woman to host a nationally televised U.S. public affairs program. She served as moderator of PBS’ Washington Week in Review from 1999 until her death in 2016.

At this year’s dinner she posthumously received the Dunnigan-Payne Prize for lifetime career achievement alongside veteran CBS correspondent Bill Plante. The award was created in 2022 to raise up the achievements of Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, the first two African American women to serve as members of the White House press corps.

Various collegiate journalists were honored as White House Correspondent Association scholars. Students traveled from across the country to attend the dinner and participate in a private press briefing with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre the day prior.

“As an investigative journalist, I try to embody what I believe is the true goal of a journalist, as stated by Peter Finley Dunne: ‘Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,’” said Mikayla Roberts, a scholarship recipient from Hampton University. “It’s an honor to be validated in my efforts with this award and I look forward to continuing to do everything in my power to be the voice of the people.”

There were approximately 2,600 guests in a star-studded crowd that included celebrities like singer-songwriter John Legend, model Winnie Harlow and actress Rosario Dawson. Each ticket purchased helps support the WHCA in securing better accommodations for White House journalists. This year the organization proudly announced the renovation of the press briefing room which is set to take place over the next two months.

“The press workspace is cramped and the furniture is literally falling apart. The briefing room seats are mysteriously sticky,” said Tamara Keith, outgoing WHCA president. “And the last time any of this was updated was when George W. Bush was president.”

As designated entertainer for the event, Wood’s monologue skewered, without mercy, ex-CNN anchor Don Lemon and ex-Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, along with jabs at Vice President Kamala Harris.