May 26th, 2024

Chants of ‘shame on you’ greet guests arriving for the annual White House correspondents’ dinner

By Farnoush Amiri, The Associated Press on April 27, 2024.

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden is set to deliver an election-year roast Saturday night before a large crowd of journalists, celebrities and politicians against the backdrop of growing protests over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

In previous years, Biden, like most of his predecessors, has used the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner to needle media coverage of his administration and jab at political rivals, notably Republican rival Donald Trump.

But with protesters pledging to gather outside the dinner site, any effort by Biden to make light of Washington’s foibles and the pitfalls of the presidential campaign will have to be balanced against concerns over the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the perils for journalists covering the conflict. Criticism of the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s 6-month-old military offensive in Gaza has spread through American college campuses, with students pitching encampments in an effort to force their universities to divest from Israel. Counterprotests back Israel’s offensive and complain of antisemitism.

Biden’s speech before an expected crowd of nearly 3,000 people at a Washington hotel will be followed by entertainer Colin Jost from “Saturday Night Live,” who is sure to make some pokes at the president as well as his opponents.

There will also likely be a spotlight on the many journalists detained and otherwise persecuted around the globe for doing their jobs, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since March 2023.

Much of the protests outside the venue of the glitzy annual dinner in the run-up to the event were aimed at Western news media, not Biden, however.

Chants accused U.S. journalists of undercovering the war and misrepresenting it. “Shame on you!” protesters draped in the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarf shouted, running after men in suits and women in long dresses and holding clutch purses as guests and other participants hurried in to the event.

Other protesters lay sprawled motionless on the pavement, next to mock-ups of flak vests with “press” insignia.

“Free, free Palestine,” other protesters chanted as they marched to the site.

Before the president gets to the Washington Hilton – where the event has been held for decades – he was expected to pass hundreds of people rallying along the path of Biden’s motorcade and nearby to bring attention to the high numbers of Palestinian and other Arab journalists killed by Israel’s military since the war began in October.

Law enforcement, including the Secret Service, have instituted extra street closures and other measures to ensure what Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said would be the “highest levels of safety and security for attendees.”

The agency was working with Washington police to protect demonstrators’ right to assemble, Guglielmi said. However, “we will remain intolerant to any violent or destructive behavior.”

More than two dozen journalists in Gaza wrote a letter last week calling on their colleagues in Washington to boycott the dinner altogether.

“The toll exacted on us for merely fulfilling our journalistic duties is staggering,” the letter states. “We are subjected to detentions, interrogations, and torture by the Israeli military, all for the “˜crime’ of journalistic integrity.”

One organizer complained that the White House Correspondents’ Association – which represents the hundreds of journalists who cover the president – largely has been silent since the first weeks of the war about the killings of Palestinian journalists. WHCA did not respond to request for comment.

According to a preliminary investigation released Friday by the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 100 journalists have been killed covering the war in Gaza. Israel has defended its actions, saying it has been targeting militants.

“Since the Israel-Gaza war began, journalists have been paying the highest price – their lives – to defend our right to the truth. Each time a journalist dies or is injured, we lose a fragment of that truth,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna said in a statement.

Sandra Tamari, executive director of Adalah Justice Project, a U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy group that helped organize the letter from journalists in Gaza, said “it is shameful for the media to dine and laugh with President Biden while he enables the Israeli devastation and starvation of Palestinians in Gaza.”

In addition, Adalah Justice Project started an email campaign targeting 12 media executives at various news outlets – including The Associated Press – expected to attend the dinner who previously signed onto a letter calling for the protection of journalists in Gaza.

___ Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo and Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.

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