White House Correspondents’ Association President Tamara Keith On This Year’s Dinner, Tumult In The News Business & The Case For More Joe Biden Press Conferences: Q&A

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will draw loads of attention for the celebrities who show, the jokes that Joe Biden tells and the shtick that Roy Wood Jr. uses in his routine.

What often gets lost is the year-round role of the WHCA itself, including pressing for access to the president and promoting the First Amendment. This year, there also will be reference to Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal journalist jailed in Russia, and Austin Tice, the freelance reporter kidnapped in Syria in 2012.

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Deadline recently talked with Tamara Keith, the NPR White House correspondent who is the president of the WHCA this year, about the Biden administration and the press, as well as what she plans to tell the dinner crowd at a time of economic distress in the media business.

After Donald Trump skipped the dinner in the four years he was president, Joe Biden returned to the tradition, and this year he will attend along with First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Their presence, Keith said, “sends a signal that they endorse the need of the press to do our jobs, or the importance of a free press and a functioning democracy.”

She also said that “at a time when our industry is having a lot of problems, [the event] is an opportunity for us to explain to the American people watching at home on C-SPAN what it is we do and why we do it, and why it matters.”

Here is Deadline’s discussion with Keith:

DEADLINE: Obviously there there have been attacks on the media that have been going on now for some time, but this year there are the waves of layoffs across the news business.

TAMARA KEITH: We will definitely at least nod to that at the dinner. It is a very challenging time. My employer just had a really significant round of layoffs. BuzzFeed News is no more. ABC has had layoffs, Washington Post, CNN. This is cyclical, and every time it happens there are really good people who lose their jobs. … This is pretty universal from company to company that there are revenue problems. There is an advertising problem.

DEADLINE: How did you come to select Roy Wood Jr. as the featured entertainer, and what are you expecting?

KEITH: I like to think that it’s fate that he was at the White House shooting a segment for The Daily Show. And right as I was trying to figure out who the entertainer would be, and as I was leaving the White House that day, I ran into him on the North Lawn … got a chance to chat with him briefly. And then a few weeks later, we were able to actually do the formal invite, and he agreed to come do the show.

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One thing that’s really wonderful is that Roy has been working really hard at comedy for now 20-plus years. And it really feels like he is on the rise. He is having a moment with The Daily Show opening and the anchor opening. He’s just really good. And what what I like about his comedy is that it’s surprising. He tends not to take the cheap shots, and his jokes, often the payoff is not what you’re expecting it to be. Because he brings a different perspective having grown up in the South, and he had a dad who was a journalist. I just think that he comes to things differently than a lot of other comedians.

DEADLINE: How was it asking him to to do that dinner? Was there any reluctance there, because this isn’t the easiest gig?

KEITH: It is one of the worst gigs in comedy. Or not. It’s also a really great opportunity. It is a gig that is a great opportunity, but it is also very challenging because you have to follow the President of the United States, and it’s a difficult room. It’s a roomful of people, some of whom can’t take a joke, and others who feel like they aren’t supposed to laugh at the joke because they’re reporters. Which makes it a really interesting, challenging room to work. And then you also have the audience at home watching on C-SPAN and hopefully CNN. There was no reluctance that I saw, but who knows what was going on with his team. What I will say is that he attended the dinner last year and was in the room for Trevor Noah’s set, and so he knows the gig well.

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DEADLINE: What will you be saying in your speech?

KEITH: It’s about the themes of how we do what we do, and why we do it, and why sometimes we’re shouting from under the wing of Air Force One or shouting in the Oval Office trying to ask questions. And it also talks about the challenges that our industry has faced. There will be a mention of Evan Gershkovich and Austin Tice; their family members will be at the dinner. I guess what I’m trying to do with my speech, in part, is explain that, yes there are all these people dressed up in fancy gowns and tuxedos, but we’re all really normal regular people who started out in small papers or in small-market TV stations and are just trying to do the best we can.

DEADLINE: A criticism of the dinner is that it is a gathering of the Beltway elite — that was an attack from the Trump years — or that its journalists mingling with the people they cover.

KEITH: Yes, that is a criticism. And yes, this dinner is sort of a weird thing to see. But it has proven to be a very important gathering for Washington, but also it raises a lot of money for our scholarship. It is our biggest and primary way of raising money, both for the scholarships and for the work that the WHCA does on a daily, hourly basis to improve the ability of journalists to do their jobs. And also, it is a celebration of the First Amendment, and all those people in that room are tacitly endorsing the need for journalists to ask tough questions.

DEADLINE: Looking at your tenure so far as WHCA president, what has been the most challenging thing you have had to deal with?

KEITH: I would say that the most vexing thing has been dealing with some of the decorum issues in the briefing room. In terms of the relationship between the president and the press, they are not doing a lot of press conferences, and we’ve had to really advocate to get the ones that we’ve gotten, which is which is quite frustrating there. The other thing I would say, and it’s been a slow process, is working to restore normal post-Covid — restore normal access to events, restore just sort of the normal functioning of the way the press has traditionally covered the White House.

DEADLINE: The White House’s view has been that while the president has not done a lot of press conferences, he does take questions as he’s headed to Marine One or after he delivers a statement.

KEITH: Yes, he does do these impromptu Q&A sessions, but they tend to be extremely short, like one or two minutes. The questions are short and shouted often and shouted over the clamor of aircraft. And the answers are also quite short. What a formal press conference allows is both for the press to prepare, and for the president to prepare, and for the press to ask longer, more thoughtful, more nuanced questions and for the president to provide longer, more thoughtful, more nuanced answers. You gain insight into a president’s thinking and personality and approach to governing from these longer answers that you just can’t get with like him shouting half a sentence over the sound of Marine One. You’re shouting short sentences to try to be heard, and the president in those situations, really gets to choose the questions he wants to answer.

DEADLINE: Why do you think that they are keeping formal press conferences to a minimum?

KEITH: Oh, I think you should ask them that question. But the sense I have is that they just think that there are more effective ways for him to communicate his message. They don’t see the value in going through us.

DEADLINE: Biden also hasn’t done a whole lot of interviews. The White House also seems to like the president doing non-traditional media. He recently sat down for an interview with Kal Penn. Is that all that surprising?

KEITH: That is. They’re meeting the American people where they are by talking to Drew Barrymore instead of Lester Holt. And they believe that it’s a strategy that works.

DEADLINE: How about you?

KEITH: I’m not in the presidential strategy business. I think that he would get more coverage if he spoke at length more often to reporters. He gives lots of speeches. But they’re really getting carried live on cable, and they’re definitely not going to carry live on network TV. They are narrowcasting, whereas the bulk of the press corps that is trying to cover him would be broadcasting.

DEADLINE: As we enter the presidential election cycle, do you think the president is going to have to compete more for coverage, especially with what is going on with Trump? The week that Donald Trump was indicted, the president was in Minneapolis, but all that was overshadowed.

KEITH: There was a lot of coverage in Minneapolis. If you look back on the 2020 campaign, that was the Biden team strategy. It was, “We don’t care if we’re not getting national press.” They wanted the local headlines. And when the president comes to town or a presidential candidate comes to town, you do get the local headlines. And they’ll do exclusive interviews with a local TV reporter.

DEADLINE: In that sense, do you think it’s harder to make the case for access for the national media that is in the briefing room?

KEITH: They don’t seem wildly persuaded by our argument, I would say. They have their strategy and it is our job to keep asking, and to ask again, and ask one more time, and make the case for more press conferences and make the case that for more interviews and all these things. That is our job at the White House Correspondents’ Association is to advocate for the full press corps to be able to get eyes on the president on a regular basis. And for the pool to be in position when he’s doing events or speaking — or even when he’s on vacation, to have the pool in position. All of that is our job.

DEADLINE: It’s been almost a year that Karine Jean-Pierre has been press secretary. How do you think she has been different from Jen Psaki?

KEITH: She doesn’t have as many one liners as Jen Psaki or the so-called Psaki bombs. I think she moves around the [briefing] room more and has done a better job of calling on people toward the back of the room. She’s on book. But generally speaking from where I sit as a broadcast person, I’d always rather have tape from the from the president saying something, then the press secretary. And that doesn’t matter who the press secretary is.

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DEADLINE: Getting to decorum, I think the last big flare-up was when the Ted Lasso cast was in the briefing room. Is it more than one reporter in particular, or is this more of an ongoing problem?

KEITH: There have been decorum issues that have extended beyond just one person, but we’re typically able to have conversations with people and try to work through the difficulty.

We don’t control who comes into the briefing room. All we can do is ask our members to be collegial with others, and in my view, collegiality is not shouting over another colleague. And arguably, not making everyone else in the room look bad. It’s not our job to defend the press secretary or protect the press secretary. But it is our job to make sure that the widest variety of reporters in the room can ask questions, and if there are these lengthy disruptions, that is preventing someone from asking a question.
And there was one time where that briefing was almost ended. Karine almost walked out. And there was a time when she did walk out. It’s an ongoing challenge.

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