The Media Today

The limits of Biden’s power to ‘cut through’ in the media

June 7, 2022
President Joe Biden speaks about the latest round of mass shootings, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Biden is attempting to increase pressure on Congress to pass stricter gun limits after such efforts failed following past outbreaks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A week ago, NBC News published a quadruple-bylined story under the headline “Inside a Biden White House adrift.” The network reported, based on more than two dozen interviews with administration officials and other top Democrats, that the president—beset by a string of crises and “rattled by his sinking approval ratings”—is “pressing aides for a more compelling message and a sharper strategy.” Since then, several similar stories about Biden’s political standing, and frustration therewith, have appeared, including a CNN deep dive into “dysfunction” among White House staff and a Politico piece detailing internal finger-pointing and low morale. Meanwhile, the White House has pushed back with increasing insistence (to CNN: “That is not the dynamic in the White House”; to Politico: “This depiction of the White House is simply divorced from reality”) and attempted a messaging pivot to reclaim the initiative, with allies dispatched to TV studios to evangelize about positive economic indicators and Biden himself placing op-eds on inflation and Ukraine in major newspapers while giving a rare prime-time address to demand that Congress act on guns. This week, he’s going on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show.

NBC’s story (and, implicitly, Politico’s) noted that Biden’s frustration lies, in part, with recent media coverage that he sees as overly critical of his economic record and insufficiently critical of Republican obstruction of his agenda. Of the flurry of articles, however, it was CNN’s, written by Edward-Isaac Dovere, that engaged most deeply with Biden’s relationship with the press and efforts to cut through the news cycle with his message—efforts, Dovere concluded, that seem strikingly out of date. The president, Dovere wrote, is “a 79-year-old man who still thinks in terms of newspaper front pages and primetime TV programs, surrounded by not-quite-as-senior aides in senior positions with the same late 1990s media diet,” with one reportedly saying that “soft media” metrics “don’t feel as real” as traditional-media consumption, and others chiding younger staffers for (in Dovere’s words) their “tweet-by-tweet thinking.” Aides take solace when a Biden trip away from Washington dominates local news coverage, but often despair when the national press looks away. Some allies have complained that Biden is being kept at arm’s length from voters even though his greatest skill is as an empathetic retail politician. One described him as “the world’s most interactive man” trapped on “the set of Jeopardy.”

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All these stories sparked a broader conversation about Biden’s media engagement and wider political fortunes that has played out in op-eds, on social media, and on TV. On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter suggested to Gene Sperling, a top Biden adviser, that the president’s media strategy isn’t working, reading directly from Dovere’s article; Sperling countered that the White House has “a very diverse strategy for getting the message out,” but that’s it hard to get public buy-in in a climate of sharply rising prices. Meanwhile, Andrew Bates, the abovementioned White House spokesperson, also pushed back on Dovere’s old-school characterization of Biden’s media habits, noting that he employs dozens of staffers to create digital content and recently sat down with two digital creators. Last week, the K-pop supergroup BTS visited the White House and drove a huge spike in viewership of the daily press briefing; the group’s meeting with Biden was closed to the press, but officials released a video that scored tens of millions of views.

To some extent, criticisms of Biden’s media strategy are fair—every administration’s message discipline gets hampered by events and internal clashes, and Biden’s certainly could be sharper. It’s also a bit rich for Biden to gripe about his message not cutting through with the press when, in some ways, he has kept journalists at arm’s length. As his aides often point out, Biden frequently talks with reporters in informal settings—on his way to and from trips, for example—and has restored regular briefings for administration spokespeople; as I wrote back in January, access to a presidency does not always hinge on access to a president himself. Still, the latter is always welcome and Biden rarely offers it in a formal, in-depth setting. He hasn’t sat for a proper interview with a major news outlet in nearly a hundred and twenty days; he sometimes chats with favored opinion writers, but mostly not on the record (save for the food). Per Dovere, Ron Klain, the chief of staff, has suggested that Biden do a monthly town hall to take questions directly from voters, only for that idea, too, to get “sucked into the maw of blaming and dysfunction.” An aide said that more town halls are coming, but so far there’s no proof of that.

If accounts of Biden’s fortunes, however, are sometimes criticized for wrongly suggesting that he has unilateral power to achieve his policy objectives, he also faces sharp limits on his ability to cut through the news cycle. The incentives and predilections of political media are one such limit. It is, obviously, not our job to message on Biden’s behalf or to nod along to his surrogates’ talking points without due pushback. It is our job, however, to consistently convene coverage around matters of substantive public concern, and that duty at least aligns with areas of focus that Biden is working to spotlight, from the economy to guns. To some extent, major outlets have convened such coverage. But it too often gets drowned out by less useful noise about the latest horse race or palace intrigue—including, ironically, some of the recent stories about Biden’s messaging woes. The White House’s recent pivot “only ended up reinforcing the very story the White House wanted to change: Biden and the Democrats are in deep trouble,” the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote yesterday. “Mainstream political outlets will always highlight division and dysfunction over policy. This is how stories about backroom infighting and The Drama at Court came to dominate the press instead of Biden’s plan to Whip Inflation Now.”

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As well as blaming the political press for this, Shephard faulted Biden and the wider Democratic Party for their “stubborn misreading of the political media ecosystem”—born, essentially, of their persistent belief that the media behaves more cool-headedly than described above—and credited Biden’s fiery guns address as an effective template for cutting out the middleman and taking his message directly to the country (while also piquing the middleman’s interest). These are good points. Again, though, there are sharp limits to Biden’s narrative power here. He can’t reshape the entrenched habits of political media; prime-time addresses to the nation can certainly be effective, and Biden could do more of them, but their effectiveness is to some extent a function of their rarity—if Biden did one every night, the press would likely get bored. Ultimately, the sorts of stories that are wont to drive the news cycle are often not the sorts of stories that administrations want to push. As Magdi Semrau wrote last week, “you get news by making negative news.” For Donald Trump, a creature of attention, one could plausibly make the case that all coverage was good coverage. One cannot for Joe Biden.

Similar points apply much more broadly to the information ecosystem beyond the mainstream press. Cutting through traditional right-wing media, a power center in and of itself, is hardly in Biden’s wheelhouse, at least not with his current message. And then there’s social media. The administration has had some success pushing viral content. But major platforms have their own warped incentive structures, and, as we all well know, the sort of material that breaks through the ceaseless online maelstrom is often deeply toxic. The former president understood this well, too, prior to the major platforms kicking him off, and many of his acolytes do as well. It’s not hard to imagine that leading figures close to Biden don’t really get the internet. But how much would it really change if they did? The idea that Biden could replicate anything like Trump’s success at online attention-hustling—or, for that matter, would want to—is a fantasy.

Inevitably, some of the recent dysfunction coverage has rippled with allies’ calls for the White House to “let Biden be Biden.” This is a West Wing–ish cliché, but it gets to the heart of Biden’s media problem, albeit probably not in the way intended by those saying it. Biden, ultimately, is an old-school president—indeed, he ran for office pledging to be a restorer of civility as well, crucially, as someone who would be a quieter president than Trump, allowing fatigued Americans to take a break from the news. That pledge is not incompatible with having a sharp message, of course—arguably, the opposite is true—but it is to some extent premised on not cutting through as much in the attention economy. Of course, as Shephard suggested, in an ideal media and information ecosystem, sober and sparing substance might cut through on its own. But that is not the ecosystem we have.

Below, more on the Biden administration and messaging:

Other notable stories:

  • Two weeks after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the AP’s David Bauder asks how journalists and grieving people might better “co-exist within a moment no one wants to be part of.” Meanwhile, John Temple, who led the Rocky Mountain News during the 1999 Columbine shooting and chose to run a photo of a dead student, argues that publishing graphic images of victims now could backfire. (Temple discussed this with CJR in 2019.)
  • Chesa Boudin—San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, who faces a recall vote today—criticized media coverage for exaggerating fears about crime in the city. “People read the story, they see the video, and they perceive crime as being out of control,” Boudin said. He added that while the city has a “real problem” with auto burglaries, the situation isn’t that different from when he took office, with shoplifting having gone down.
  • For Teen Vogue, Alex Perry writes that debates as to whether journalists should get off Twitter often overlook the perspectives of students, particularly from underrepresented communities, who use Twitter to advance their careers. “Twitter ultimately has allowed me to connect with other young journalists, access career-related resources, and learn about the uglier sides of the industry in a way I couldn’t otherwise,” Perry writes.
  • Last week, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at the Post, publicly called out David Weigel, a colleague, after he retweeted a sexist joke. A Post spokesperson described the tweet, at the time, as “reprehensible.” Now, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports, the paper has suspended Weigel for a month without pay. (On Sunday, Sally Buzbee, the Post’s top editor, urged staffers, in a memo, to “treat each other with respect and kindness,” both online and off.)
  • In media-jobs news, Steve Scully (himself no stranger to unfortunate tweets) will host a show in Chris Cuomo’s old time slot on SiriusXM. Elsewhere, Politico reports that Marie Harf, currently a liberal commentator on Fox News, could be the next spokesperson at the Pentagon. And Axios reports that the committee investigating January 6 has tapped James Goldston, a former head of ABC News, to help produce its first televised hearing.
  • The Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior profiled Steve Bannon and his show War Room. “The whole operation has an amusing shoestring quality to it,” Senior writes, “a bit like Father Coughlin stumbled into Wayne and Garth’s basement.” But Bannon “is more than just a broadcaster. He’s a televangelist, an Iago, a canny political operative with activist machinations” who is trying “to insert a lit bomb into the mouth of American democracy.”
  • Fifty years after Nick Ut took the iconic “Napalm Girl” photo in Vietnam, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the subject of the photo, writes for the Times about her complex relationship with it. These days, “I’m glad Nick captured that moment,” she writes, but “I also remember hating him at times. I grew up detesting that photo. I thought to myself, ‘I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me?’”
  • Indigenous leaders in a remote part of Brazil have raised the alarm after Dom Phillips, a British journalist who has written for publications including The Guardian, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, an expert on Indigenous communities, failed to return from a reporting trip to an Amazon reserve on Sunday. The Guardian reports that Pereira, in particular, has received threats from loggers and miners seeking to invade Indigenous land.
  • And in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence triggered by rebel lawmakers in his party, but the margin was close enough that the story of his future will rumble on. The Sun described the vote as the “NIGHT OF THE BLOND KNIVES”; meanwhile, an ally slammed the BBC for using a photo that made Johnson “look like Hannibal Lecter.” (For the story of how we got here, read Friday’s newsletter.)

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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.