President Biden vowed to fight for all Americans “wrongfully detained” abroad at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday, as Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s ongoing detainment in Russia loomed large.
“Jill, Kamala, Doug, and I, and members of our administration, are here to send a message to the country and quite frankly to the world — a free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, of a free society, not the enemy,” Biden said.
“Evan went to report in Russia to shed light on the darkness that you all escaped from years ago,” the president said to Gershkovich’s family at the event. “To the entire family, everyone in this hall stands with you. We’re working every day to secure his release, looking at opportunities and tools to bring him home. We keep the faith.”
Gershkovich was arrested late last month by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on espionage charges, which both the Journal and the White House have rejected. Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially designated the reporter as “wrongfully detained” earlier this month.
Biden also vowed to “keep the faith” for journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped while reporting in Syria in 2012.
“Journalism is not crime,” Biden said. “Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with every American held hostage or wrongly detained abroad.”
The president also recognized WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was in the audience at this year’s correspondents’ dinner. Griner spent 10 months detained in Russia last year, before the Biden administration secured her release in a prisoner swap.
“My commitment is to bring them home, just as I know your commitment is to continue to be a free and fearless press,” Biden said. “And that is what we honor tonight.”
“This is not hyperbole,” he continued. “You make it possible, you make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority, and yes, even to laugh at authority without fear and intimidation. That’s what makes this nation strong.”
Biden also took a moment, in a night known for its jokes, to poke fun at himself. At 80 years old, his age has been a constant point of contention, particularly amid his recently announced reelection campaign.
“I believe in the First Amendment, not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” Biden said.
“You call me old, I call it being seasoned. You say I’m ancient, I say I’m wise. You say I’m over the hill, Don Lemon would say that’s a man in his prime,” he later added.
The president also took several jabs at Fox News, in the wake of its massive $787 million-dollar settlement with Dominion Voting Systems and its recent split with host Tucker Carlson.
“Look, it’s great the cable news networks are here tonight,” Biden said. “NBC News owned by NBC Universal. Fox News owned by Dominion Voting Systems.”
“Last year, your favorite Fox News reporters were able to attend because they were fully vaccinated and boosted,” he added. “This year, with the $787 million dollar settlement, they’re here because they couldn’t say no to a free meal.”
This was Biden’s second time addressing the White House Correspondent’s Association during their annual dinner. Former President Trump chose not to attend while he was in office.
The event was also placed on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and was brought back only last year. Biden signed legislation earlier this month to end the national emergency.
Guests were required to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests before attending.