WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House Correspondents' Association dinner -- known for its fun albeit ferocious jabs at Washington -- took a more solemn tone this year as President Joe Biden acknowledged the several American journalists under siege in authoritarian countries around the world.
"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," Biden said in his speech.
The 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 spying, despite strong denials from his employer and the U.S. government. Some guests wore buttons with "Free Evan" printed on them.
Also among the 2,600 people attending the gala was Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, who has not been heard from since disappearing at a checkpoint in Syria in 2012. U.S. officials say they operate under the assumption that he is alive and are working to try to bring him home.
"Journalism is not a crime," Biden said. "Evan and Austin should be released immediately along with every other American detained abroad." He said: "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 medalist who was detained in Russia for nearly 10 months last year before her release in a prisoner swap. Griner attended with her wife, Cherelle, as guests of CBS News.
"This time last year we were praying for you, Brittney," 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, the model and television personality.
Actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the dinner with a pre-taped video about the importance of a free and independent press, calling reporters an "ally of the people." 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 Biden spent the majority of his speech focused on the issue of press freedom, he also jabbed at some of his most vocal political critics. The occasion is a familiar and comfortable one for Biden, who attended several of the dinners as vice president to Barack Obama. The Washington event returned last year after being sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Biden was the first president in six years to accept the invitation after Donald Trump shunned the event while in office.
But this year, he came not only as the commander in chief but as a presidential contender.
He started his punchlines with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, taking aim at a recent bill Republicans passed that would lift the debt ceiling in exchange for a series of budget cuts, including some of Biden's key legislative achievements.
"The last time Republicans voted for something that hapless it took 15 tries," Biden said, referring to the gruesome fight McCarthy endured to become speaker in January.
And he didn't stop there, going after Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch about his age. "And you call me old?" he told the crowd. Murdoch is 92; Biden, 80.
Biden even made a couple of self-deprecating jokes, mostly surrounding criticism of his age as he mounts a second bid for reelection. "I believe in the First Amendment and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it," he said to a roaring crowd.
Wood, who took the stage after Biden, also zeroed in on the president's age.
"We should be inspired by the events in France. They rioted when the retirement age went up two years to 64," Wood said. "Meanwhile in America, we have an 80-year-old man, begging us for four more years."