Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, opted against going to the dinner because of the obvious danger. Organizers required all guests to be vaccinated, boosted and test negative before attending, although few wore masks besides the serving staff. As a concession to the potential peril, Mr. Biden, who at 79 is in a high-risk age group, skipped the dinner and came only for the speaking portion of the evening.
But his presence was meant to represent a return to normalcy after Mr. Trump’s war on the news media. While Mr. Biden, like other presidents, has complained about his coverage, sometimes snapping at reporters who ask questions he does not care for, aides said he intended his decision to attend to be a reaffirmation of his support for a free press.
“The free press is not the enemy of the people,” Mr. Biden said. “Far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth.” He cited in particular those who have given their lives reporting from the battlefields of Ukraine, a reminder, he said, of the importance of journalism.
Still, the president gently chided journalists, urging them to avoid sensationalism and trivialization. “The First Amendment grants a free press extraordinary protection,” he said, “but with it comes, as many of you know, a very heavy obligation to seek the truth as best you can, not to inflame or entertain but to illuminate and educate.”
“There’s incredible pressure on you all to deliver heat instead of shed light,” he said, adding, “American democracy is not a reality show.”
The correspondents’ association made a point of adding a serious note to the evening’s festivities by honoring two Black female pioneers of the White House press corps, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, who were two of only three African American journalists regularly reporting on the White House in the 1950s. It also paid tribute to journalists killed in Ukraine and singled out the family of Austin Tice, a reporter who was abducted in Syria in 2012.
But the event otherwise resumed its status as Washington’s premier exercise in excess, bracketed by days of fancy, expensive, alcohol-filled parties held across the city late into the night, bringing members of the political class together with the journalists who cover them and the occasional fixtures of Hollywood, Wall Street and other American institutions.