At White House correspondents' dinner, Biden vows to fight for Americans detained overseas

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, speaking Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, vowed to continue to work to free Americans believed to be wrongly detained abroad.

During the annual event, Biden mentioned the plight of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, detained in Russia on March 29 and accused of espionage.

"Free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, of a free society — not the enemy," Biden said, countering the outlook of the last administration.

Gershkovich is one of a number of Americans held overseas on what United States officials see as false charges produced to transform the prisoners into what Biden described as "political pawns" and "human beings as bargaining chips."

He also spoke of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia on an espionage conviction, a charge he denies, and Austin Tice, a former U.S. Marine held captive since 2012 in Syria, where he went to work as a freelance journalist.

"We're keeping the faith for Austin," the president said. "We're not giving up."

Biden recognized a special guest at the event, Brittney Griner, the professional basketball player held in Russia for most of 2022 and then freed in December as part of a prisoner swap with the U.S.

In the case of Gershkovich, his employer and the Biden administration have denied that he was spying on behalf of the United States. And on April 10, the State Department designated Gershkovich as wrongfully detained.

"Tonight our message is this," Biden said: "Journalism is not a crime."

A senior White House official said the president has an "unwavering commitment to bring home wrongfully detained journalists and other Americans."

This year’s comedian performer was Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent for "The Daily Show," who spoke of his father's own work as a journalist and co-founder of radio's National Black Network.

Last year was the first time a sitting president attended the program since Barack Obama in 2016.

At the 2022 dinner, Biden spoke for just under 15 minutes, cracking jokes at himself and the media.

"I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have," Biden quipped as he started his remarks.

Biden praised the importance of a free press in his remarks last year.

"What’s clear — and I mean this from the bottom of my heart — that you, the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century," Biden said last year.

The history of the famed dinner stretches back to 1914, when the White House Correspondents' Association was established. The association held its first dinner in 1921, sparking the annual tradition. But it wasn't until 1924 that the president, then Calvin Coolidge, started attending.

Comedians typically host the event and crack jokes about the administration and the media.

One of the more notable White House correspondents’ dinners was during Biden’s vice presidency in 2011, when Obama and comedian Seth Meyers blasted Donald Trump, who was in the audience.

“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican,” Meyers said as Trump looked on, appearing unamused. “Which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

Trump skipped all of the White House correspondents' dinners during his term.

After comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a blistering 2018 dinner routine taking aim at the Trump administration, Trump tweeted that “the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it.”

The next year, the organization opted to have historian Ron Chernow deliver a speech instead of a comedian.

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