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Biden calls for release of wrongfully detained Americans abroad during White House Correspondents’ dinner

<i>Al DragoReuters</i><br/>President Joe Biden
Al DragoReuters
President Joe Biden

By Maegan Vazquez and Kaanita Iyer, CNN

President Joe Biden called for the release of detained journalists and citizens abroad at the White House Correspondents’ dinner on Saturday, before poking fun at everything from his age to Elon Musk.

“Let me start on a serious note,” Biden said, “members of our administration are here to send a message to the country and, quite frankly, to the world. The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar of a free society, not the enemy.”

The audience at the Washington Hilton represented a “who’s who” of officials within the Biden administration, with some top White House officials seated at the dais. First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were all in attendance Saturday evening. The event also boasted a number of high-profile celebrity guests like Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.

Beyond one-liners, the president’s remarks were calibrated to his reelection campaign priorities and the topical issues he often discusses at the podium — such as the economy and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

But Biden took special care to address the issue of wrongfully detained Americans abroad.

Saturday’s dinner took place about a month after the arrest of American citizen Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent based in Moscow. The United States has designated him as wrongfully detained by Russia.

“Tonight, our message is this: Journalism is not a crime,” Biden said Saturday.

Earlier this week, the US issued new sanctions on groups in Russia and Iran accused of taking Americans hostage as the Biden administration works to prevent more captive-taking and potentially secure the release of citizens currently being detained.

This year’s dinner also comes amid a media industry reckoning. The state of the economy, fears of a recession and dried up investment capital have played a large part in what’s driven the dramatic industry changes over the last several months. But other struggles, like high-profile legal issues and ratings woes, have also been apparent.

Typically, presidential speechwriters work through remarks for a few weeks. Last year, at his first correspondents’ dinner since becoming president, Biden told his team he envisioned an address that went beyond just a series of one-liners, wisecracks and gags — a tactic he employed again Saturday night.

Still, the dinner gave Biden a rare chance to flex his comedic muscles in front of entertainers and members of the media, an opportunity he used to make jokes about his predecessor’s recent scandals.

Biden joked he was offered $10 to keep his speech under ten minutes. “That’s a switch, a president being offered hush money,” he quipped in reference to Trump’s indictment in an alleged hush money scheme.

In just the last two weeks, the media industry has been hit by multiple high-profile terminations, layoffs and the complete shut down of a news organization.

Host Tucker Carlson and Fox News severed ties. Anchor Don Lemon and CNN parted ways. Comcast announced NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was leaving company after an outside investigation “into a complaint of inappropriate conduct.” Vice Media announced layoffs and the cancellation of its acclaimed program “Vice News Tonight.” BuzzFeed News shut down.

The event raises funds for the White House Correspondents’ Association scholarship fund and offers a rare opportunity for journalists and politicians to rub elbows — but also features remarks from a comedian often tasked with walking a fine line between gentle ribbing and legitimate criticism.

This year’s dinner headliner was “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who took aim at both parties and the media as he criticized politics in Washington.

As Biden stepped away from the podium to make room for Wood, the comedian quipped: “Real quick, Mr. President. I think you left some of your classified documents up here,” in reference to the classified documents found in Biden’s Delaware home.

Wood also joked about Fox News’ settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, the oustings of Carlson and Lemon, the ethics scandal around Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Trump, who he dubbed the “king of scandals.”

“Keeping up with Trump scandals is like watching Star Wars movies,” he said. “You got to watch the third one to understand the first one, then you got — you can’t miss the second one because it’s got Easter eggs for the fifth one.”

In 2018, comedian Michelle Wolf drew fire after she delivered a brutal monologue taking the Trump administration to task for its positions on abortion, press access and coverage of the beleaguered White House.

This year’s dinner comes weeks after Biden signed legislation to end the national emergency for Covid-19. Attendees were still required to submit proof of a negative Covid test before the event.

Last year’s dinner was the first time the gala had been held since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden was the first president to address the dinner’s attendees in six years, after former President Donald Trump famously boycotted the event throughout his tenure in office.

Biden last year used the appearance to loudly affirm his belief in a free press — a bold contrast to a predecessor who labeled reporters the “enemy of the people.”

This story has been updated with additional information Saturday.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Donald Judd contributed to this report.

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