The White House Correspondents’ Association has an online shop, where it sells a T-shirt that is funnier than most of the jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

“Ally of the People,” the shirt says.

This was especially amusing on Saturday night, when the glittering crowd of political and media elites gathered at the Washington Hilton for the annual event that’s about as vox populi as tonight’s Met Gala in New York City.

In fact, not only were “we the people” conspicuously absent from the proceedings, but the jokes were on them.

Start with President Joe Biden’s mockery of his “Dark Brandon” persona when he pulled on dark sunglasses at the podium.

Dark Brandon exists as a meme because the president has a disturbingly angry side which he reveals to members of the media who don’t ask the right questions. If Biden were as genuinely mild-mannered and affable as the “Uncle Joe” mythology goes, Dark Brandon wouldn’t have taken off after the red-lit Philadelphia speech that Nikki Haley said looked like was broadcast from “the depths of hell.”

By mocking “Dark Brandon” — both at the dinner and on his 2024 campaign website — Biden is making fun of Americans who find the president’s dark side both revealing and yes, kind of creepy.

Then there’s the red-carpet optics of the event, which may not draw the same crowd of glitterati as the Oscars, but clearly aspires to. (Why would Chrissy Teigen be invited to a White House Correspondents’ dinner, anyway?)

The stated goals of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner sound vaguely noble. The group’s website says, “Our annual dinner is our main source of revenue to finance all of our work, including support of the journalists working to cover the president, events and programs to educate the public about the value of the First Amendment and a free press, and scholarships to help the next generation of journalists.”

The problem is, many Americans believe, with good reason, that the First Amendment is under attack by the same people who hold themselves up as its champion, and recent revelations about the White House working to silence critics on social media, and limiting the reach of reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop, has done nothing to convince them otherwise.

Distrust in media is so widespread that half of Americans believe that news organizations deliberately mislead them, according to a February report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation. That’s a real problem for the Fourth Estate, and it isn’t helped by the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which too often looks like a lovefest between a Democratic president and the journalists who love him.

And the love doesn’t stop even when the president makes fun of the press.

Scott Jennings, a conservative commentator on CNN and veteran of the George W. Bush White House, pointed out the irony of Biden’s “joke” about how he doesn’t speak to the press for long and then doesn’t take questions. A press that was truly an “ally of the people” wouldn’t find this funny at all, but the people at the White House correspondents’ dinner did.

Jennings pointed out what the glitterati didn’t seem to notice: “... he wasn’t laughing with you, he was laughing at you.” 

Of course, Republican presidents have attended the event in the past; Ronald Reagan even famously phoned in after he had been shot in 1981, saying with his characteristic good cheer, “If I could give you just one little bit of advice, when somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it.”

But with the erosion of trust in journalists since then, the event seems ever more tone deaf. Donald Trump did not attend the event in all his years as president, and in speaking to that decision in 2017, his then-deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said something that now seems revelatory:

“I think it’s kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” she said.

That there’s seemingly no tension now between the White House and the journalists who cover it should signal a problem, as well.

President Joe Biden stands with the audience and applauds as an image of journalist Evan Gershkovich appears onscreen during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Saturday, April 29, 2023. | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press