May 27th, 2024

Chants of ‘shame on you’ greet guests at White House correspondents’ dinner shadowed by war in Gaza

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

WASHINGTON (AP) – An election-year roast of President Joe Biden before journalists, celebrities and politicians at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner Saturday butted up against growing public discord over the Israel-Hamas war, with protests outside the event condemning both Biden’s handling of the conflict and the Western news’ media coverage of it.

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

With hundreds of protesters rallying against the war in Gaza outside the event and concerns over the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the perils for journalists covering the conflict, the war hung over this year’s event.

“Shame on you!” protesters draped in the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh cloth shouted, running after men in tuxedos and suits and women in long dresses who were holding clutch purses as guests hurried inside for the dinner.

Chants accused U.S. journalists of undercovering the war and misrepresenting it. “Western media we see you, and all the horrors that you hide,” crowds chanted at one point.

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

Ralliers cried “Free, free Palestine.” They cheered when at one point someone inside the Washington Hilton – where the dinner has been held for decades – unfurled a Palestinian flag from a top-floor hotel window.

Criticism of the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s six-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 motorcade Saturday took an alternate route from the White House to the Washington Hilton than in previous years, largely avoiding the crowds of demonstrators.

Biden’s speech before an expected crowd of nearly 3,000 people was being followed by entertainer Colin Jost from “Saturday Night Live.”

Kelly O’Donnell, president of the correspondents’ association, opened the event by reminding the audience of the important work that journalists do but noting that the dinner is happening at “a complex moment for our nation,” and in a decisive election year.

The night’s remarks also were expected to cast 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.

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.”

Protest organizers said they wanted to bring attention to the high numbers of Palestinian and other Arab journalists killed by Israel’s military since the war began in October.

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.

“How can you still go when your colleagues in Gaza asked you not to?” a demonstrator asked guests heading in. “You are complicit.”

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

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