The Media Today

Reporters hype—then waste—Biden’s first press conference

March 26, 2021

Last week, when the White House announced that Joe Biden would hold his first formal press conference as president on March 25, the pre-game hype began. Reporters excavated the history of White House press conferences, then shared their questions for Biden with the public, and each other. There was coverage of Biden’s prep—involving “three-ring binders and fourteen-point font”—and, because this is Joe Biden, his potential to commit “gaffes” and his staff’s presumed terror at the prospect. The event was framed, in some outlets, as a president who talks much less than his predecessor shedding his invisibility cloak, even though Biden sat down for a network interview just last week, and taped a prime-time address the week before. Many journalists needled Biden for waiting longer to hold a presser—sixty-five days into his term—than any president in a century. (That criticism was not universal, however. “Presidential press conferences are almost never about the public,” as Politico’s Jack Shafer noted. “They’re about letting the press preen a little.”)

Given the anticipation, one might have expected White House reporters to use their time with Biden wisely. Some did, asking specific questions on consequential topics such as troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and tariffs on China. On the whole, though, the questions were a flop. Some were misframed: Biden was asked, based on the worthless word of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, if he had “rejected bipartisanship”; a question about Republican voting restrictions cast them not as an assault on democracy, but a potential partisan disadvantage for Biden’s party. (Biden corrected the error: “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” he said. “It’s sick.”) Other questions came up repeatedly, even though Biden answered them the first time: Reporters raised the situation at the border, applying the highly dubious narrative that Biden’s “decency” is leading to a “surge” in child migration. Biden was asked twice whether he’d run again in 2024 and, if so, whether Vice President Kamala Harris would be on his ticket, and whether he thought Donald Trump would be his opponent. (“Look, I… I don’t know where you guys come from, man,” Biden replied. “I’ve never been able to plan three and a half years ahead for certain.”) All of the above questions long preceded the first substantive question on gun policy, despite the recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado. There were no questions at all about the pandemic.

Listen: America does not know what a mass shooting looks like

Afterward, the weirdness was acknowledged. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes called it “nuts” that the press didn’t ask about COVID; April Ryan, theGrio’s White House correspondent, who was at the presser but not called on, noted on Twitter that there “are still major challenges with bridging the race gap with vaccinations and the impact of this pandemic on communities of color.” As a whole, media watchers gave the press conference overwhelmingly negative reviews. “Questions should be designed to elicit from the president responses that permit the public to inform itself,” NYU’s Jay Rosen argued, “but many of those who rise at these events ask questions designed so that the president’s responses will make news.” Dan Froomkin, the journalism critic, said that the presser created the impression that as “Biden is trying to solve problems, the press corps is trying to create them,” and observed that, in the case of the border, Biden now “has to fact-check the media,” after four years of the opposite. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a journalist who covers the climate crisis (which also failed to come up in any detail), had perhaps the most succinct take: “It was a shit press conference and the reporters are why.”

Biden, as is his wont, talked a lot at the presser. Some of his answers were evasive or misleading, but he often spoke thoughtfully and substantively about urgent challenges. Post-game coverage chewed over his answers—yet for lack of gaffes or “drama,” the analysis focused on, well, the lack of those things. “Biden faces thorough questioning—and largely avoids major headlines,” ABC News wrote, in a headline. Numerous pundits said that Biden didn’t want to make any news; others called the presser “boring.” Dan Rather compared it to the Super Bowl—a big buildup followed by an anticlimax. “After Biden’s low news, low drama press conference,” The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere wondered, “will there be as much of a drumbeat for him to hold the next one?”

If journalists’ indignant protestations about Biden’s delay had been sincere, the answer to Dovere’s question should be “yes”; if the drumbeat slows, it will reflect—as did many of the questions Biden was asked yesterday—that the political press is more concerned with novelty, spectacle, and contrived outrage than with transparency. That’s not to say the pre-presser clamor was proportionate—it was, in my view, absurdly over the top, and premised on the faulty Trump-era expectation that only the president can make political news. It would still be good to have more regular presidential pressers, but they’re only as useful as the scrutiny reporters apply. Next time, let’s focus less on the existence of the presser, and more on sharpening our questions. And, for heaven’s sake, lose the questions about 2024. We’ve suffered enough.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Biden and the political press:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Medium has pivoted so many times it has now come full circle

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.