The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner – known for its fun albeit ferocious jabs at Washington – took a more solemn tone this year as US President Joe Biden acknowledged the several American journalists under siege in authoritarian countries around the world.
In his speech at the event on Saturday night, Mr Biden said: “We are here to send a message to the country and, quite frankly, to the world: The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, of a free society, not the enemy.”
The president and First Lady Jill Biden, upon arriving at the Washington Hilton, met privately with the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since March.
He was charged with spying, despite strong denials from his employer and the US government. Some guests wore badges with “Free Evan” printed on them.
Mr Biden said: “Journalism is not a crime. Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with every other American detained abroad.
“I promise you, I am working like hell to get them home.”
The Bidens also made a beeline for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star and Olympic gold medallist who was detained in Russia for nearly 10 months last year before her release in a prisoner swap. Ms Griner attended with her wife Cherelle as guests of CBS News.
“This time last year we were praying for you, Brittney,” Mr Biden said to the basketball star.
The annual black-tie dinner drew a wide array of celebrities and media moguls to Washington, with parties being held across the capital. Among those in attendance were actor Liev Schreiber, singer John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen.
Mr Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris were seated on the stage along with comedian Roy Wood Jr, a correspondent for The Daily Show, who was the featured entertainer.
While Mr Biden spent the majority of his speech focused on the issue of press freedom, he took time to take jabs at some of his most vocal political critics.
The occasion is a familiar and comfortable one for Mr Biden, who attended several of the dinners as vice-president to Barack Obama.
The Washington event returned last year after being side-lined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Mr Biden was the first president in six years to accept the invitation after Donald Trump shunned the event while in office.
He started his punchlines with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, taking direct aim at a recent Bill Republicans passed that would lift the debt ceiling in exchange for a series of budget cuts, including some of Mr Biden’s key legislative achievements.
“The last time Republicans voted for something that hapless it took 15 tries,” Mr Biden said, referring to the gruesome fight McCarthy endured to become speaker in January.
The president then went after Fox Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch about his age. “And you call me old?” he told the crowd.
Mr Biden even made a couple of self-deprecating jokes, mostly surrounding criticism of his age as he mounts a second bid for re-election. “I believe in the First Amendment and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he said to a roaring crowd.
Wood Jr, who took the stage after Mr Biden, also zeroed in on the president’s age.
“We should be inspired by the events in France,” he said. “They rioted when the retirement age went up two years to 64. Meanwhile in America, we have an 80-year-old man, begging us for four more years.”