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.
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.
Below, more on Biden and the political press:
- More on the presser: Attendance at the presser was limited to thirty spaced-out reporters, for public-health reasons. Biden called on those from the Associated Press, the Washington Post, ABC, Bloomberg, CBS, CNN, PBS, NBC, Univision, and the Wall Street Journal. Peter Doocy, of Fox News, was among the reporters not to be called, which his network interpreted as a “snub.” “Why make Peter Doocy the story?” Dana Perino, a Fox host and former White House press secretary, said on air, making Doocy the story. “Just take his question and move on.”
- The press shop: Yesterday, Biden moved to expand his communications team, appointing Andrew Bates as a deputy White House press secretary. Bates worked as a spokesperson for Biden’s presidential campaign, then handled the media on behalf of Biden’s cabinet nominees during their confirmation processes. “During the campaign,” the Post’s Annie Linskey reports, “Bates earned a reputation as a forceful and competent spokesman who handled questions about some of the most sensitive issues, including the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.”
- Lessons learned? I: Writing on his blog, Press Think, Rosen outlined “four or five developments that are… encouraging,” amid widespread fears among media-watchers that the press learned nothing from the Trump years and is slipping back into old bad habits. Rosen highlighted the examples of the Pennsylvania broadcaster WITF, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ProPublica, VoteBeat, and MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, all of whom have used their coverage to push back aggressively on the erosion of US democracy.
- Lesson learned? II: FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver revisited the post-election narrative that opinion polling failed. In fact, Silver argues, “a decidedly mediocre year for the polls was being mistaken for a terrible one when that conclusion wasn’t necessarily justified.” Overall, “the average error of 6.3 points in 2019-20 is only slightly worse than the average error across all polls since 1998, which is 6.0 points.” Nate Cohn, data whizz at the New York Times, disagreed with Silver’s rosy assessment, arguing that the 2020 trend toward “greater systemic bias” is more important than the average error.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, tornadoes streaked across the South, killing at least five people and causing extensive damage. James Spann, a meteorologist with ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama, was covering the tornadoes on air when he found out that his home had sustained “major damage”; he stepped away briefly to check on his wife (she was safe), before returning to lead coverage for several more hours. “The house is intact,” he told viewers. “My ask is that you consider helping those that are homeless tonight.”
- Last night, police in LA detained James Queally, of the LA Times; Kate Cagle, of Spectrum News; and Jonathan Peltz and Kate Gallagher, of Knock LA, while they were covering protests around the police clearing of a camp for unhoused people. (All the journalists were later released.) At one point, the LAPD tweeted that members of the media must “obey the dispersal orders” and use a “designated media viewing area.” Numerous journalists responded by tweeting about how the First Amendment works.
- The Minnesota court that is trying Derek Chauvin, the white cop who killed George Floyd last year, barred the Daily Mail from covering the trial. The Mail will be denied access “to all trial exhibits, to the media center, and to any and all other media updates.” The court accused the Mail of paying to obtain and publish “stolen” body-camera footage of Floyd’s arrest, then called the ban an “equitable and appropriate response.”
- The New Republic appointed Michael Tomasky, the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and a columnist at the Daily Beast, as its new top editor, replacing Chris Lehmann. Tomasky will retain his position at Democracy; Lehmann will become an editor at large at the New Republic. The magazine also announced that it will relocate most of its editorial operations from New York to Washington, DC, where it was headquartered until 2014.
- Staffers at the science news site Stat are unionizing with the guild that represents journalists at the Boston Globe, which, like Stat, is owned by the Henry family. Stat’s reputation—and that of its star reporter Helen Branswell—has soared during the pandemic. “I think one of the lessons there,” Stat’s Damian Garde told the Times, “is if you invest in people like Helen Branswell, you, too, can have prescient coverage.”
- Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp will acquire Investor’s Business Daily, a financial paper, in a two-hundred-and seventy-five-million-dollar deal. The company said its new title has nearly a hundred thousand digital subscribers; makes ninety percent of its revenue from digital; and offers “significant… cross-selling opportunities” with the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and MarketWatch, which NewsCorp already owns. The Journal has more.
- For CJR, Sam Sweeney assesses the limits of journalistic impact in the context of the long-running conflict in Syria. “In terms of raw footage, the Syrian civil war may be the most extensively documented conflict in history,” Sweeney writes, and yet “when discussing Syria with reporters who have covered the country, I come across a common theme, namely a frustration that their work has done little to stop the bloodshed.”
- This week, Agnès Callamard, who investigated the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of the United Nations, told The Guardian that a senior Saudi official threatened to have her “taken care of,” which Callamard perceived as a death threat. Yesterday, The Guardian identified the official as Awwad al-Awwad, a former aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who now heads the Saudi human rights commission.
- And some news from the home front: Zeynep Tufekci, the techno-sociologist and Atlantic writer who has become a leading commentator on the pandemic, will, in the fall, join the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia Journalism School. Tufekci will help shape the work of the center, which was founded in 2019.