The White House Correspondents’ Association ditched its tradition of having a comedian roast the president and press corps at its annual fundraising dinner Saturday, instead having historian Ron Chernow as its featured speaker.
Chernow, the author of six books including biographies on Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, made the case for the First Amendment, all while giving a recounting of the press’ historic relationship with presidents dating back to Washington.
For the third year in a row, President Donald Trump skipped the annual dinner and, this year, he ordered his White House officials to boycott the event.
Here are several of the key lines about the free press and the First Amendment from Chernow’s speech.
On the legacy of the press
You folks should always remember you are heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells, exposing the horrors of lynching; Jacob Riis, the misery of Manhattan slums; Lincoln Steffens, municipal corruption; Ida Tarbell, the machinations of standard oil; Upton Sinclair, the scandalous meat packing industry; Rachel Carson, the dangers of pesticides; Woodward and Bernstein, exposing Watergate; and “The New York Times” and “Washington Post” publishing the Pentagon Papers. This is a glorious tradition. You folks are part of it and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity.”
On George Washington’s relationship with the press
“Washington always honored the First Amendment, saying such evils, ‘must be placed in such opposite to the infinite benefits resulting from a free press.’ Like every future president, Washington felt maligned and misunderstood by the press, but he never generalized that into a vendetta against the institution.”
On the power of the press
“The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision.”
On threats to the press
“We’ve seen past administrations threaten the press directly, whether it be Lincoln shutting down disloyal papers during the Civil War, or Woodrow Wilson stifling dissent with the Espionage Act in World War I. But what is happening today is perhaps even more insidious – a relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media. Even the smartest courtroom lawyers can’t defend the press against such vague and sweeping attacks. You folks can only preserve that hard-won credibility in one way – with solid, fair-minded, accurate, and energetic reporting.”
On the importance of journalists’ work
“Now, you folks in the media write the early drafts of history and we historians the later ones. Your work gives freshener, and color, and immediacy to our sagas. I know how embattled you feel at this critical juncture as you combat the mistrust of a significant portion of the American electorate. I think you do noble work to preserve democracy at a time when a rising tide of misinformation masquerading as news threatens to make a mockery of the First Amendment.”