White House Correspondents’ Dinner Weekend: Serious Moments For The Media Give Way To Satire And Mirth

President Joe Biden spent a great deal of his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the fate of journalists held in captivity, vowing, “I promise you. I am working like hell to get them home.”

Still in a tone of seriousness, Biden said, “I believe in the First Amendment, and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”

It took a few beats for many of the 2,600 or so packed into the Washington Hilton subterranean ballroom that the president was making a transition to the satirical portion of his remarks. By the time that he got to a Don Lemon joke, it was on.

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Many past dinners have taken place amid the backdrop of moments of national and international upheaval, but what was a bit unusual about this year was that the turmoil is so centered on the media itself: High profile firings, layoffs, closures, as WHCA President Tamara Keith noted, while globally journalists face detainment for doing their jobs. The potential Writers Guild of America walk out didn’t get a mention, but it was on the minds of many of the entertainment industry executives and creatives in the crowd.

Roy Wood, Jr. was a hit with his humor in part because it so succinctly captured the problem of misinformation: In a landscape of paywalls, “People can’t afford the truth.” “Say what you will about a conspiracy theory, at least it’s affordable.”

The dinner and the many events surrounding it have always been a contrast to the crises, and this year was ever apparent, due in part of post-Covid pent up demand. The crowds were back to what they were pre-2020, masks were scarce and even Dr. Anthony Fauci was present. He skipped last year’s event out of concern over the spread, and he was right. There was a post-event outbreak.

“If you look at the infection rate, it is very low,” Fauci said at the ABC News pre-dinner reception. “It’s not zero, but you have to get to the point where you get on with life.”

The ABC News event, held in one of the below-ground meeting spaces of the hotel, briefly came to a standstill in the crush of Disney CEO Bob Iger, daytime host Kelly Ripa and actor Ke Huy Quan, Oscar winner for Everything, Everywhere All At Once.

The celebrity turnout still doesn’t compare to the dinners during Barack Obama’s administration, putting a premium on just about any boldfaced name from outside the Beltway: Liev Schreiber walked through hotel corridors almost as if it was a continuous photo line. He admitted that the atmosphere was a bit frenetic, and he stayed at one party the night before only briefly because of the horde, but he was otherwise game on Saturday for the experience.

Just outside the Fox News reception, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and network contributor, said he was a first-time attendee. “Good party,” he said, albeit with a bit of a wry smile on his face.

During the years when Donald Trump skipped the dinner and counter-programming it with rallies and tweeting, Republicans were a bit of a scarce commodity at the event. This year, they were more in the mix. Among those spotted were Kellyanne Conway, Hogan Gidley and David Bossie, as well as former Attorney General Bill Barr (a guest of Fox News) and presidential contender Asa Hutchinson, the former governor Arkansas (a guest of CBS News).

Despite being the predictable target of jokes, given the Dominion Voting Systems settlement and exit of Tucker Carlson, Fox News did have an extensive turnout, including Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and president Jay Wallace, as well as a number of anchors and hosts and correspondent Benjamin Hall, severely injured in Ukraine.

Seated on the dais was White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich. In her remarks, Keith seemingly made reference to the revelations in the Dominion lawsuit, as she referred to reporters “who have been derided by the people within their organization” for reporting the facts. In an email from November, 2020, the now-departed Fox host Carlson had called for Heinrich to be fired for fact-checking one of Trump’s tweets.

After the onslaught of barbs from Biden and Wood, some network personalities weren’t guffawing in the event post-mortem. On Sunday on Fox & Friends Weekend, host Pete Hegseth slammed the dinner as “a gigantic love-fest for the Democrat Party, the establishment inside D.C.,” per Mediaite. He pointed to the cheers that greeted Biden when he mentioned announcing his 2024 presidential run, although the crowd included not just journalists but many administration guests and supporters.

That said, hand-wringing over the event — and the signal it sends of reporters mingling with their sources — has been a criticism for many, many years, but the dinner has lasted. Major media outlets still throw splashy parties that promote their brands.

The Comcast-NBC Universal News Group after party at the Organization of American States drew figures such as First Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Rosario Dawson and John Leguizamo, as well as lawmakers like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. Dan Crenshow (R-TX) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), with giant peacocks featured throughout the venue.

CBS branding also was displayed throughout the residence of the French ambassador, where figures like White House communications director Ben LaBolt and the State Department’s Ned Price mingled.

More to come.

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