The centennial celebration of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner offered more than jokes and celebrity selfies.
Amid Saturday evening’s humor came a few moments of reflection as WHCA President Steven Thomma addressed the organization’s discriminatory past.
Thomma focused on diversity in his speech and the changes that have come to the business of covering the president. Noting that the WHCA was formerly an all-white male institution, he acknowledged, “We denied membership to blacks” and rigged the membership rules so black journalists couldn’t join.
The first black journalist to cover a White House press conference was Harry S. McAlpin in 1944. He ignored the objections of fellow journalists and entered the Oval Office where he met President Roosevelt, who shook his hand and said, “Harry, I’m glad you are here.”
Thomma announced at Saturday’s dinner a new scholarship created to honor McAlpin, whose son was in the audience. The WHCA also granted McAlpin posthumous membership to its ranks.
“We’re going through a major and significant change in the media,” Thomma continued, adding that the WHCA board is now half women and includes “faces of color” as well as representation from new media outlets.
“This year for the first time we added to the press pool a gay newspaper,” Thomma said, acknowledging the recent addition of the Washington Blade to the pool.
President Obama also referenced gays joining the WHCA’s ranks during his remarks.
“What tonight also reminds us is that the fight for full and fair access goes beyond the chance to ask a question,” Obama said. “Decades ago, an African American who wanted to cover his or her president might have been barred from journalism school, been burdened by Jim Crow and banned from press conferences.”
Obama continued, “For over 100 years, even as the White House Correspondents’ Association has told the story of America’s progress, you’ve lived it too, gradually allowing equal access to women, minorities and gays.”
Four Blade staff members attended the dinner: editor Kevin Naff and reporters Lou Chibbaro Jr., Chris Johnson and Michael Lavers.
“We’re grateful to Steven Thomma for acknowledging the Blade’s addition to the press pool during the dinner,” said Naff. “The struggle of the LGBT press to gain access to the government institutions we cover has been long and sometimes frustrating, so to be present for that moment was moving and meaningful for all of us.”
The Blade was recently added to the in-town press pool, marking the first time the White House Correspondents’ Association has extended the honor to an LGBT outlet. Johnson has served as the Blade’s reporter in the pool this year. Chibbaro was first credentialed at the White House during the Reagan administration but did not serve in the pool of reporters that shadow the president when he leaves the White House.
The Blade has had a complicated history with the White House press corps. Its credentials were revoked during the second term of the George W. Bush administration but promptly reinstated when Barack Obama was sworn in.
“When I began writing for the Blade as a freelancer and later as a staff reporter more than 30 years ago it would have been unimaginable to witness a U.S. president and the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association acknowledge and welcome a gay newspaper into the ranks of the White House press pool,” Chibbaro said. “Back in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, we considered it a major advancement to be occasionally approved for a one-day temporary pass to gain access to the White House press briefing room.”