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April 30, 2023
Thanks to Heather Timmons, White House editor for Reuters, whom I met a lifetime ago in summer 2016 as we tried to figure out what on earth was going on in the Republican Party, I got to hear President Biden’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in person last night. Speaking in the giant hall in the Washington Hilton where the event was held, the president was relaxed and funny, poking fun at himself, entrepreneur Elon Musk, former Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, and House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Finally, he embraced the Dark Brandon meme that suggests he has a laser-eyed alter-ego who ingeniously defeats his opponents.
Biden also joked about his age, most memorably when he said he believes in the First Amendment that protects freedom of the press, and “not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”
But right now, the First Amendment itself is no joke. A member of the U.S. press corps is in prison in Russia on trumped-up charges of “espionage.” Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was covering Russia’s mercenary military organization the Wagner Group when Russian officials arrested him on March 29. The U.S. State Department has called him “wrongfully detained,” which means the government sees him as a political hostage.
In contrast, around 2,600 people showed up last night to witness humorist Roy Wood Jr. make fun of the president and vice president to their faces. It was theater, but theater that demonstrates an important principle: our government has no right to silence our criticism of it.
The Framers of our government enshrined the right to freedom of the press in our Constitution along with the right to gather together, to practice any religion we want (including none at all), the right to say what we want, and the right to ask our government to do (or not to do) things. After writing a new constitution that created a far stronger national government than existed under the Articles of Confederation, which had created the government since 1777 (although the Articles were not ratified until 1781), the Framers designed the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights to hold back government power.
The power to control what citizens can publish about the government would give leaders the power to destroy democracy. A free press is imperative to keep people informed about what leaders are doing. Lose it, and those in power can do whatever they wish without accountability.
From the beginning of the American republic, though, the press was openly partisan. This meant the president worked quite closely with newspaper reporters from his own party, while ignoring, or sometimes even trying to silence, his opponents. By the 1880s the country had begun to turn against the partisan press and to “independent” newspapers, and the number of papers took off.
No longer advocates for a party position and eager to attract readers, reporters began to look for new, exciting stories. And not much was more exciting in 1886 than a marriage in the White House. On June 2 of that year, 49-year-old President Grover Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, who had been his unofficial ward, in the Blue Room.
Reporters had dogged their courtship (many thought he was interested in her more age-appropriate mother), and they flocked after the newlyweds, finally prompting the irritated president to ask his personal secretary to keep them away. But while the president was angry at the scrutiny, editors recognized a good story, and by the end of Cleveland’s first term, a reporter had figured out he could just stay at the White House and write columns based on interviews with people coming from meetings with the president. Other papers immediately stationed their own people at the White House.
In Cleveland’s second term, which started in 1893, his private secretary worked directly with the press. Through the next few presidencies, the role of press secretary began to take shape. Theodore Roosevelt relished attention from reporters. When his shy successor William Howard Taft shunned them, they complained he was hiding things.
So, shortly after he took office in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson held the nation’s first press conference, only to complain both that reporters were quoting statements he considered off the record, and that the conferences were a free-for-all in which anyone could shout out questions, often ones Wilson found Irritating (like his opinion about Groundhog Day).
In 1914, rumors circulated that Congress might begin to choose which reporters would be allowed at Wilson’s press conferences. In alarm, eleven White House reporters organized the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA). In 1921, as part of their annual election of officers, fifty members of the growing WHCA held a dinner. With former newspaperman Warren G. Harding in the White House, they were in a celebratory mood, despite Prohibition (which they ignored). Taking their cue from the famous Gridiron Club, which held dinners where they roasted politicians, WHCA members poked fun at the administration and Congress.
While at first the reporters simply wanted access to the president, as the WHCA became an established force it came to work for transparency more generally, recognizing that journalists are the main eyes and voice of the people. It now protects press passes for journalists who regularly cover the White House and assigns seats in the briefing room. It also funds scholarships for aspiring journalists and gives journalism awards; the annual dinner is their main fundraising event.
In the modern era there is plenty of criticism over the glitzy dinner and what seems too much chumminess between journalists and lawmakers. But the demonstration that the government cannot censor the press is valuable. For the four years of the past administration, the president refused to attend the dinner and barred his staff and other officials from attending.
The same president called the press the “enemy of the people,” encouraging his supporters to attack reporters. Angry at negative stories about him from Voice of America, Trump replaced the independent editor of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, with Michael Pack, a close ally of Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Pack set out to turn the channel into a pro-Trump mouthpiece. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell later concluded that Pack’s firing, disciplining, and investigating of journalists who didn’t toe the line violated the First Amendment.
The dance between the government and the press is intricate and full of missteps, but last night, at an event where journalists wore pins that read, “I Stand With Evan,” this historian found the public reminder that the president must answer to journalists, with grace if at all possible, oddly moving.