Since I first came to Washington, D.C., and got a job in 1987 as a reporter covering the president, I have attended a preponderance of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinners. None was better or more impactful than the one held this past weekend, the first after three years of boycotts by the truth-hating Trump and two years of cancellations due to the pandemic.
This one came in the midst of the international crisis caused by Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the most unsettling event of its kind since World War II. None, therefore, underscored the true importance of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy more than this one, and President Joe Biden and comedian Trevor Noah drove that point home brilliantly.
Truly, my essay last week, “The Press’ Signal Role Exposing Putin’s Crimes in Ukraine,” foreshadowed their remarks and the spirit exhibited by the 2,600 people there. As Noah stressed at the conclusion of the event, contrasting the extraordinary and brave coverage of that war by the media of the free world to that of the controlled Russian press should assure us of what we, the media, stand for.
As the owner of a local newspaper, I was particularly pleased that both Biden and Noah underscored the importance of the free press on both the global and local level to hold authorities to account and to give voice to those without.
Unlike such dinners in the past, this one was uncommonly devoid of Hollywood celebrities, honing the focus on its true purpose. When Pete Davidson is the biggest entertainment world name in attendance, the point is made. It is hoped that, as a comedian himself, he will have learned from the boffo performance by Noah. As a survivor of Staten Island culture whose fireman dad lost his life in 9/11, Davidson could be a strong spokesman for First Amendment values in a way that our younger generation sorely needs to embrace better now.
Me being at the dinner was a small way of standing with and supporting the role of the free press, free speech and “unvarnished truth,” and by way of it, democracy and its core values of the importance of the individual soul in our troubled world.
The exercise of the role of the free press in our society is something that we (resorting to the “editorial we” for now) have practiced day to day on a practical level grinding out a newspaper as we have at the mighty Falls Church News-Press every week for over 1,600 consecutive weeks since I founded it and our first issue rolled down the conveyor belt off the printing press in March 1991.
It certainly doesn’t start amid a sea of unfamiliar faces at such a formidable event as a White House Correspondents dinner, even if it is taking place in the heart of the most important democracy in the world and amid the most powerful and influential persons in that democracy.
Still, it is of great significance to me to place myself amid the aspirations of so many people to sustain our precious democracy through the free press.
One sorry soul, an unhappy former associate, wrote that attending a dinner one year was like attending “Balshazzar’s feast,” referencing the Old Testament story of a Babylonian oppressor of the Israelites.
Despite all the glitz and pomp of the WHCA dinner, he couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The event has always stood as the annual recognition of the most precious values of our culture, not an orgy appeasing a brutal, godless tyrant, but a celebration of both what we are achieving and aspiring to attain on behalf of a better, more gracious and loving species.
“American journalism is quintessentially an American thing that reveals our soul,” Biden said in his remarks. “We are a great nation because we are a good people, and the free press matters more now than it ever has.”
It must never be taken for granted, because a free press at its best is the guardian of truth. Journalists have a great obligation, he said, to “speak the truth as best you can, because it matters, truth matters.”