After a two year pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, The White House Correspondents’ Association returns with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. To the public, the WHCD is just a chance for journalists from major news outlets and the political talking heads they see on television to cut loose—as much as a black-tie event can allow—with the nation’s most beloved and less favorable politicians. Hosted by comedians like, Cedric the Entertainer, Wanda Sykes, Larry Wilmore, the roasts are the crowd favorite. However, the annual dinner has a more substantial purpose than that.
The WHCA honors distinguished print and broadcast journalists for excellence in overall White House coverage and visual journalism covering the president. In the age of alleged “Fake News,” celebrating those truthtellers, is crucial to our democracy. Here, NBC News’ own, Yamiche Alcindor and Kristen Welker tell ESSENCE about the importance of the return of one of D.C.’s most prestigious events, their respective careers, and the significance of Black journalists in media.
Yamiche Alcindor, 35, a former reporter for The New York Times and the 2020 National Black Journalist Association Journalist of the Year is the newest member of NBC News’ Washington team. Over the span of 12 years, the American-born Haitian has covered everything from the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unrest in Ferguson following the murder of Mike Brown, to the Baltimore protests in response the killing of Freddie Gray. She previously reported for USA Today and has appeared as contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. She is still the host of the program Washington Week on PBS.
Alcindor became a journalist because she heard the name Emmett Till in a song by Kanye West. Upon research, she realized how civil rights journalists were so essential to the progression of Civil Rights Movement.
“Luckily, we had a vibrant Black press that gave us all sorts of information. We had Jet Magazine who published Emmett Till’s photo,” the Georgetown and New York University alums tells ESSENCE.
Alcindor’s desire to become a journalist, underlines the significance of African Americans contribution to media and American history. Without the gruesome imagery of Till’s body at his open-casket funeral, the brutal reality of the Jim Crow era would have not only stalled the Civil Rights Movement, but also erased it from history completely. It also emphasizes the daunting reality of reporting on issues particularly pertaining to Black Americans while also existing in a Black body.
Though painful, it is necessary.
For this, Alcindor explains how she finds the balance, “I find joy and peace by one, acknowledging the times where I don’t feel joyful and peaceful and giving myself the time and the space to feel what I need to feel.”
She continues, “I’m a big Oprah fan. And she says, the most important thing you can give yourself is time. Journalists, of course, we all are strapped for time. We’re all running around doing stories, but I’ve learned, especially in the last two years, if I’m not feeling well, or if I just need time to pause, then I just do that. And I figure it out.”
Colleague Kristen Welker seconds the belief of giving oneself grace in the name of care and preservation. Welker says she pulls support from family by stepping away from the work and spending time with her husband and her nine-month-old daughter. She even counts her extended family too.
“For me, my work team at NBC is like a family,” she tells ESSENCE. “I have the great fortune of being very close with my colleagues, with my teammates. Peter Alexander is my co-chief White House correspondent but also a dear friend and my co-anchor on Weekend Today. And we have a very unique relationship. And when we’re covering these challenging stories, we often look to each other for editorial guidance and lean on each other.”
Welker, 45, known for her work as co-host of Saturday TODAY’s weekend show, for being co-chief White House correspondent for NBC News, and for moderating the final 2020 presidential debate, is making her own news, started her career interning for TODAY in 1997. Welker also leads NBC News’ female-led White House team.
Before joining forces on the same network, coincidentally enough, Welker and Alcindor both had newsworthy encounters with former-President Donald Trump. Back in 2020 questioned a direct quote from Trump regarding COVID-19 testing during a White House press briefing. Things quickly turned sorrow. While evading her questions and over speaking her, he told Alcindor, “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
#WeLoveYamiche was a trending topic on Twitter for hours.
Alcindor recalls the interaction calling it “surreal.”
“It felt good for people to rally around me, but I also think that I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is the responsibility that you have, that these folks want answers and that they need to get them,’” she tells ESSENCE. “Overall, it solidified to me that journalism has to be a medium where you really try to hold the most powerful people accountable.”
Welker’s run-in came after the first 2020 presidential debate between Trump and Biden, where she made history as the first Black woman to moderate a presidential debate solo since 1992. In a now unavailable tweet, Trump called her “terrible and unfair.”
Both Alcindor and Welker look forward to the revival of the WHCD.
This year, guests can expect a new award during the ceremony. The WHCA has announced the establishment of a lifetime achievement award in honor of two trailblazing Black women journalists. The “Dunnigan-Payne Prize” will be presented to the families of the late White House reporters Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne. Dunnigan, a reporter with the Associated Negro Press, was the first African American woman to receive White House credentials. Payne, a reporter for the Chicago Defender joined her a few years later and became known as the “First Lady of the Black Press” and a reporter who asked the tough questions.
The 101-year-old tradition allows all generations of journalists to foster relationships amongst one another.
“I have a mentee who I met through the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” says Alcindor. “The event really is more than just a dinner.”
Welker agrees, stating while the dinner is glamorous and exciting, the public misses the emphasis on mentoring and supporting the next generation of journalists. She has participated in panels leading up to the dinner with young aspiring journalists. Though the two champion the mentorship, for Welker, one of her favorite parts of the night is the scholarship awards.
Since 1991, scholarships have been awarded to students and young journalists who represent the profession and highlight the importance of fighting for First Amendment freedoms. According to the WHCA, it has “awarded more than $1.5 million in scholarships, and leveraged another $1.25 million in aid.” As of 2021, the college scholarship winners attended 12 different universities and received a total of $105,900.
“Every year when we give out scholarships to young aspiring journalists, when the president participates in that, I think that that shows our hearts,” Welker says. “To really have that stand as a symbol to other countries, we are there to promote journalism, to promote free speech here in this country and around the world by supporting young journalists.”