The White House Correspondents’ Association accomplished a rarity at its annual dinner and fundraiser this year: It both honored and dissed the Black Press of America.
Pioneering journalists Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, both of whom worked for the Black Press of America with the Chicago Defender and other publications, posthumously became the first recipients of the WHCA’s Dunnigan-Payne Prize.
The two African American women once served as members of the White House press corps.
While honoring the two, the WHCA failed to acknowledge National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who inexplicably was seated in the back of the room out of the view of most attendees including family members of the honorees and President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
The 82-year-old NNPA is the trade association of the more than 230 African American-owned newspapers and media companies that comprise the Black Press of America, including the Chicago Defender.
When WHCA Executive Director Steven Thomma emailed association members in December, he provided specific instructions for media outlets to secure seats and tables.
The NNPA immediately complied with the request, and wired Thomma the funds to cover a table that seats ten individuals.
However, weeks later, Thomma informed the NNPA it would only receive two seats, placed in the rear of the ballroom.
Thomma has not responded to numerous emails and telephone calls.
WHCA President Steven Portnoy and Board Member April Ryan did reach out to Chavis in attempt to explain the snub.
Presented at the dinner by CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King, the Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Career Achievement will be awarded on an occasional basis at the discretion of the WHCA board to recognize meritorious service throughout an individual’s career as a White House correspondent.
“This association of White House reporters has never given its due to these two pioneering WHCA members who paved the way for so many,” Portnoy stated. “We are proud to see to it that Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne will be forever remembered for their service to the profession and to the American public.”
Dunnigan was the first African American female reporter to be credentialed at the White House in 1947. She was joined on the beat by Ms. Payne a few years later.
Both women distinguished themselves during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, regularly pressing him at his press conferences – when no other reporters would – about his administration’s support for civil rights for Black Americans.
According to a release from the WHCA, Eisenhower insisted that he eschewed racial discrimination, and that his administration was aiming to do what was “decent and just.”
But in the summer of 1954, in response to a question about whether Black Americans could count on his support for a ban on segregation in interstate travel, Eisenhower sternly told Ms. Payne that he would not act “to support any particular or special group of any kind.”
The moment – which occurred just two months after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling – sparked the headline in the Washington Evening Star: “President Annoyed by Query On Travel Race Ban Support.”
WHCA historians said Dunnigan repeatedly asked Eisenhower about segregated schools on military bases in the south, as well as the president’s overall support of civil rights legislation.
He eventually stopped calling on the two women at his press conferences.
As one of the first ten reporters to be recognized by President John F. Kennedy at his first press conference in 1961,
Dunnigan asked about Black sharecroppers who were being evicted from their land in Tennessee simply for registering to vote.
Jet Magazine reported it was the first time Ms. Dunnigan had been called on in two years.
“In the face of the racism and sexism of the era, these two women fearlessly brought the concerns of their readers directly to the most powerful man in the world,” Portnoy said.
“It is our honor to lift up their legacies.”
In keeping with tradition, celebrities galore showed up for the gala.
Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Martha Stewart, and Fat Joe were among the A-listers, while Trevor Noah hosted the soiree.
President Joe Biden also amused the nearly 3,000 in attendance.
“I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have,” Biden joked.
He then turned the microphone over to Noah with another quip:
“Trevor, the really good news is, now you get to roast the president of the United States,” Biden remarked. “And unlike in Moscow, you won’t go to jail.”
Noah hit back immediately.
“Ever since you’ve come into office, things are really looking up,” the late night host told Biden. “You know, gas is up, rent is up, food is up. Everything.”
Noah ended the evening with a more serious tone.
“Ask yourself this question: If Russian journalists who are losing their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing,” he said. “If they had what you have, would they be using it in the same way that you do?”