Biden’s Saudi trip, Manchin’s power trip, and a missing climate link

It was the fist bump seen ’round the world—though diplomatic body-language experts and their newfound colleagues in the press saw it differently. Some reporters and commentators suggested that President Biden snubbed Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman when, on Friday, Biden climbed out of a car at a palace in Jeddah and proffered a closed fist rather than an open-palmed hand to shake. Others felt (correctly, in my view) that Biden had in fact offered MBS something more than a handshake: the fist bump, Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, said, was “worse than a handshake—it was shameful,” projecting “intimacy and comfort.” Still others didn’t seem to see much of a difference. Cleve R. Wootson Jr., a Post reporter, said it was important to note that however Biden greeted MBS, the latter got “what he’s longed for: a very public display of validation by the leader of the free world.”

While Biden’s fist bump was seen ’round the world, no member of the US media saw it in person; rather, it was Saudi state media who captured the moment and quickly pushed the footage out online. The traveling press corps faced other restrictions on their access, too. Reporters were briefly permitted to witness Biden and MBS meeting with each other, but they couldn’t hear what was said and weren’t allowed to use boom mics to pick it up; later, Biden left the palace beyond the media’s line of sight. In particular, two reporters from the Post, Wootson and Tyler Pager, were initially excluded from an official Saudi briefing after Biden and MBS concluded their meeting, despite other outlets being invited to attend. They were later admitted after raising their exclusion with the White House. The Post had earlier asked Nicolla Hewitt, a media consultant for the Saudi government, why the paper had been singled out. “I can’t engage with the Post on that,” Hewitt replied. “Don’t kill me, I’m just the messenger.”

ICYMI: The Biden administration’s weasel words on press freedom

Biden’s decision to meet with MBS was so closely scrutinized in the international press because of the Saudi government killing one messenger, in particular. Biden promised, as a candidate for president, to make the regime a “pariah” over its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi—a Post columnist and US permanent resident—in 2018. On taking office, Biden put out a US intelligence report concluding that MBS personally approved Khashoggi’s murder.

As I documented last week, Biden’s decision to now visit Saudi and meet MBS was met with widespread media criticism, not least from prominent voices at the Post, of Biden’s hypocrisy and disregard for democratic values—a tenor of coverage that continued through the visit itself, and was supercharged by the fist bump. (Though some commentators, including at the Post, cut Biden some slack.) Biden, his staff, and outside allies offered shifting explanations for the president’s U-turn, suggesting, variously, that he wouldn’t be meeting with MBS per se (MBS would merely be present at a larger gathering), that US geostrategic interests rendered Biden’s engagement with the Saudis unavoidable, and that he saw pressing MBS on human rights as a reason for the trip in and of itself. (“The way you prove that human rights are, in fact, an integral part of your foreign policy is to get out on the road and have those conversations,” John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson, said.) Ahead of his very real meeting with MBS, Biden wouldn’t commit to raising Khashoggi’s killing, but after the meeting concluded, he assured the press that he had done so in forthright terms. A senior Saudi official then said that he hadn’t heard any such exchange; on returning to the US, Biden told reporters that the official was being dishonest. Biden was also asked whether he regretted the fist bump. “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters?” he replied. “I’m happy to answer a question that matters.”

As I wrote last week, it’s broadly encouraging that press freedom, and Khashoggi’s killing in particular, were so central to so much coverage of Biden’s trip. In some other ways, though, the coverage could have been more focused, particularly around one key rationale for the trip: Biden’s hope that the Saudis and regional partners will produce more oil to lower soaring domestic prices. Various prominent stories, published both before and after the trip, framed the oil objective and Biden’s other interests as one side of a tradeoff with his Khashoggi U-turn, assessing whether Biden had scored diplomatic “wins” that were “worth” the reputational damage and often concluding, on the oil front, that Biden had not secured any commitments, at least in the short term. But this framing, at least from the perspective of holding Biden to his pledges, is wrongheaded: ultimately, Biden U-turned on press freedom in the service of U-turning on a different portion of his agenda, namely reducing US and global reliance on fossil fuels. I saw some good coverage and commentary in this direction, but shockingly little when you consider, as the economic historian Adam Tooze told Foreign Policy, that the Saudi trip and Biden’s broader bid to lower oil prices constitute “a declaration of bankruptcy with regard to climate policy.”

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The ties between the Saudi trip and Biden’s climate agenda are not without nuance—Politico reported over the weekend that the administration has been trying to nudge the Saudis toward greener policies; the White House touted a “bilateral framework on clean energy cooperation” as one outcome of the trip—but the fact the stories are tied is clear. (International press freedom and the climate crisis are linked stories, too, as the tragic recent murders of the British reporter Dom Phillips and Brazilian researcher Bruno Araújo Pereira in the Amazon showed; ultimately, if we aren’t free to hold our leaders to protecting the planet, they’re even less likely to do so.) That so much coverage of Biden’s trip seemed to look past the climate crisis is both disappointing and curious given events back in the US: while Biden was in the Middle East, Senator Joe Manchin effectively pulled the plug (again) on the president’s climate spending plans after negotiations that drove the news cycle for months, then continued to simmer below its toplines following the last time Manchin cut bait. (As with that last time, Manchin was ambiguous about the finality of his latest stance in an aggrieved-sounding interview with a West Virginia talk radio host. Still, the death of Biden’s climate plan looks sealed.)

As with Biden’s Khashoggi U-turn, Manchin quickly found himself on the end of some sharply critical media coverage—on the opinion pages, in particular, but also in some admirably hardheaded news articles. Other journalists, however, indulged Manchin’s purported concerns about inflation—without mentioning, say, his deep personal financial ties to the coal industry—while his climate stance was often framed primarily, as Vanity Fair’s Eric Lutz pointed out, as a political “kick in the teeth” for Biden. When Martha Raddatz, hosting ABC’s This Week yesterday, asked a visibly furious Senator Bernie Sanders how Manchin’s position would affect “Democrats’ climate goals and the climate itself,” Sanders responded: “Martha, it ain’t Democrats. It isn’t the president. It is the future of the planet.” Raddatz thanked Sanders for his time, then cut to a discussion of the effect on Biden’s poll numbers and a studiously balanced selection of vox pops from voters in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, one of whom referred to the climate crisis as “a made-up fairy tale.”

Ultimately, various shows and reporters siloed Biden’s Saudi trip and the tanking of his climate agenda on either side of a foreign-domestic news divide. But that’s a false dichotomy: the climate story (much like the press-freedom story) is global in scope, and Manchin’s intransigence will affect us all. As I write these words, I’m sat panting by an open window in a baking apartment in London, where the temperature is crawling up toward forty degrees (104°F) in a country whose infrastructure is not designed for that. Extreme heat and its effects are a global story right now: as Simon Evans, of Carbon Brief, demonstrated on Twitter over the weekend, it has recently dominated newspaper front pages in Spain, Turkey, China, Greece, Portugal, France, Croatia, and the US. It’s the heat felt ’round the world. And it matters.

Below, more on Biden’s trip and the climate:

  • The link: In a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, Will Bunch nailed the connection between Biden’s Khashoggi and climate U-turns in scathing fashion. Biden “pulled a rare ‘double Neville Chamberlain,’ as his country’s need for an immediate fix of cheap, planet-destroying crude oil made America’s commander-in-chief look hopelessly weak in two places at once,” Bunch wrote. “That America just can’t quit fossil fuels caused POTUS 46 to kowtow to a murderous dictator in the Middle East, even as events in Washington showed the Biden administration is held back by shortsighted greed on Capitol Hill from doing much of anything to end our oil oligarchy at home.”
  • Whitewashing: Politico’s Hailey Fuchs obtained a presentation in which Edelman, the PR giant, pitched the Saudis on a campaign that would help “market the kingdom as a new, modern-minded tourism and culture destination.” Among other ideas, Edelman suggested that the country host a week of episodes of The Daily Show, link up with MTV and Coachella, and find other ways to entice Hollywood celebrities and influencers to the country. (MTV said that neither the network nor The Daily Show are part of the campaign, but wouldn’t comment on its broader willingness to work with Saudi.) The proposed campaign “provides a window into how mega PR firms believe controversial clients can ingratiate themselves with modern media consumers,” Fuchs writes.
  • Spyware: Ahead of Biden’s trip to the Middle East, which also took in Israel and the occupied West Bank, Politico’s Maggie Miller reported that Biden would face a “spyware conundrum”: his administration has blacklisted NSO Group—the Israeli firm that makes Pegasus, a potent hacking tool that the Saudi regime and other authoritarian governments have used against journalists and activists—and Biden may have wished to raise the matter with his counterparts, but other priorities, Miller wrote, may have stopped him from doing so. In the end, it’s unclear whether Biden raised Pegasus with the Saudi or Israeli governments, but cybersecurity was at least on the formal agenda in Saudi. Israeli officials, for their part, reportedly wanted to raise Biden’s handling of NSO with him.
  • Another murdered journalist: Ahead of his trip, Biden also faced pressure to raise the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who was killed while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin in May; numerous observers have concluded that an Israeli soldier shot Abu Akleh and the Biden administration tentatively echoed that finding, while characterizing the killing as most likely a tragic accident. Abu Akleh’s family, who blasted Biden’s response to the killing, asked Biden to meet with them on his trip; he did not, though Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, invited them to the US for a meeting with him. Speaking in the West Bank on Friday, Biden called the killing an “enormous loss” and said that the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death.” Palestinian journalists present wore t-shirts in Abu Akleh’s memory, and a photo of her was placed on a vacant chair at a press briefing.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a state House committee in Texas released what the Texas Tribune described as “the most exhaustive account yet” of the Uvalde school shooting in May, revealing, in a seventy-seven-page report, that despite law enforcement botching its response, nearly four hundred officers were available on the scene—a larger group than “the garrison that defended the Alamo.” Meanwhile, Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, released unpublished body-camera footage from the scene of the shooting, claiming that doing so was necessary for “fairness” because footage obtained and recently published by the Austin American-Statesman only showed “one side” of the story. And the Times obtained a document that city leaders prepared to lay out their “narrative” after the shooting.
  • On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Rebecca Traister, of New York magazine, about her recent piece criticizing past media coverage of abortion in light of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Numerous reporters approached the abortion beat in “a deeply serious way,” Traister said, but in general, “the absolute conviction that this subject—that the question of access to abortion care—was settled persisted up through the oral arguments” last year in the case that would end up overturning Roe. “That was, in my mind, one of the very first times that I was asked by multiple television stations to come and talk about something I wrote about abortion.”
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill settled with Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times journalist who considered suing the university after she was appointed to a position at its journalism school but initially denied tenure amid a conservative backlash against her work on the Times’s 1619 Project. (Hannah-Jones eventually joined Howard University instead.) The settlement was for less than seventy-five thousand dollars, meaning that UNC’s chancellor was able to approve it without approval from university governors appointed by state Republicans. Joe Killian has more details for NC Policy Watch.
  • Anne Blythe—who was fired by the Raleigh News & Observer after Robyn Tomlin, the paper’s then top editor, concluded that she had plagiarized content from other outlets—reached a settlement with Tomlin after filing a lawsuit claiming that an editor’s note written by Tomlin defamed her. Blythe had already settled with the News & Observer and its parent company, McClatchy. Tomlin, who is now an executive at McClatchy, said that she stood by her note but is glad to “move on” from the dispute.
  • In tech-journalism news, Zack Whittaker, of TechCrunch, spoke with Runa Sandvik about Granitt, her new startup aimed at helping those, including journalists, who are at risk of cyberattacks. Elsewhere, Monica Chin writes, for The Verge, that the tech press has an “accessibility problem,” often failing to cover products that help people with disabilities. And The Information profiled Lulu Cheng Meservey, Substack’s combative comms chief.
  • In media-jobs news, Tamara Keith, of NPR, formally took over as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, succeeding Steven Portnoy, of CBS. Meanwhile, NPR appointed Shannon Bond, Lisa Hagen, Huo Jingnan, and Brett Neely to a new team focused on covering disinformation. And Mike DeBonis, a Congressional reporter at the Post, will be the editor of Politico’s influential DC Playbook newsletter.
  • Russia’s embassy in Switzerland complained to the editor of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a newspaper, and threatened legal action after the paper illustrated a story about “the power of memes in the Ukraine war” with an illustration depicting Vladimir Putin as a clown. (Volodymyr Zelensky was Iron Man.) Per Insider, Russian officials “took special offense at the rainbow colors on Putin’s face, citing his hostility to LGBTQ people.”
  • For The Nation, Lisa Torio argues that hagiographic media coverage has misrepresented the legacy of Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister who was recently assassinated. His killing obviously “deserves condemnation,” she writes, but “one cannot help but see the irony” in framing it “as a ‘barbaric act aimed to destroy democracy’ in light of the corruption scandals and authoritarian policies that mark his legacy.”
  • And, writing for the Post, the journalist Baynard Woods, a descendant of slave-owners, explains how he grappled with what to do about a Confederate monument: his own name. While Confederate statues can be torn down, “the situation with my name and byline seemed more complicated,” Woods writes. In the end, he chose to style his name with a line crossed through it, “both marking off that history and acknowledging it.”

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Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that John Kirby now works for the National Security Council.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: In this image released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)