The Media Today

President Biden’s first month with the press

February 22, 2021

In late January, at the end of her first full week as President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki went on the radio and bashed the reporters who cover the White House. “In Dana Perino’s book, she talks about having her middle finger up in the podium underneath when they’re really getting under her skin, so I’m holding that out as an option,” she said, referring to her Bush-era predecessor who is now a Fox News star. “When reporters are getting really loud, or they’re starting to ask crazy questions, I just slow down my pace and I talk very quietly, and I treat them like I’m an orderly in an insane asylum.” Fortunately, Psaki was joking. She was appearing not on a rabid right-wing talk show, but on NPR’s gentle satirical news quiz Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me; she bantered with the panelists about Biden’s favored Peloton instructor (“I really want it to be Ally Love”), her habit of answering questions by promising to circle back to you on that, and her Trump-era predecessor Sean Spicer’s turn on Dancing With the Stars, then answered trivia questions about swimming pools—a punny twist on her work with the White House press pool. “A number of people have noted that you have been very generous, professional,” Peter Sagal, the show’s host, told Psaki, referring to her first press briefings. “We’re not used to that.”

Sagal’s praise was typical of much early commentary on Psaki: that, after four years of lies, abuse, and gaslighting, it was welcome—overwhelming, almost—to have a professional person back behind the podium. In her first briefing, on inauguration day, Psaki stressed “the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room” and her “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press”; afterward, CNN’s Van Jones said, in reviewing her performance, that “there was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.” Even Spicer praised her: “She has done a very good job,” he told Politico, “and to some degree I’m a bit jealous.” As the novelty wore off, Psaki was held to at least somewhat higher standards. Observers pointed out her circling habit and political reporters griped at other perceived “non-answers” and “jargon.” There were some early controversies, but nothing earth-shaking. Psaki was asked how she would handle the presence of pro-Trump journalists (a group that Spicer, now a host at Newsmax, applied to join, before his bosses cancelled, if you will, his request); her office said they’re welcome in the briefing room, but not if they use it as a platform to spread conspiracies. She arranged for sign-language interpretation of her briefings, which was good, then used an interpreter with apparent links to far-right disinformation, which was less good. (The interpreter has not been invited back; she told the New York Post that she has been “cancelled.”) In early February, the Daily Beast reported that Psaki’s team had been asking reporters to preview their questions ahead of briefings, which “pissed off” some of them. The White House said it was merely trying to prepare better answers. Some media critics defended the practice, noting that briefings should be a place for the productive exchange of information, and not for gotcha questions; the Beast noted that Psaki had, to that point, called on every reporter at every briefing.

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Then, in mid-February, came a press-shop controversy of a much higher order. It concerned T.J. Ducklo, a deputy press secretary who has, since last year, been in a romantic relationship with Alexi McCammond, a reporter who covers politics for Axios. On inauguration day—while Psaki was expressing deep respect for the press and Biden was warning his new hires that he would fire them “on the spot” if he caught them acting disrespectfully—reporters at Politico contacted Ducklo and McCammond for comment on their relationship with a view to covering it. As Vanity Fair later reported, a male Politico journalist left a message with Ducklo, who responded by calling the journalist’s female colleague Tara Palmeri and berating her down the phone, threatening to “destroy” her and accusing her of sexual jealousy. Politico eventually ran its story in early February, but not before People magazine broke the news of Ducklo and McCammond’s romance in a frothy interview feature. (“We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”) After Ducklo’s abusive call to Palmeri became public knowledge, Psaki announced that he would be suspended for a week—a punishment, many critics noted, that did not look like an on-the-spot firing. The next day, Ducklo resigned, following what the Washington Post described as a mutual “reassessment” with his bosses. He also apologized for his “abhorrent” language.

Outside of the press shop, the relationship between Biden’s team and the press has also had its ups and downs (albeit nothing, yet, to match the Ducklo scandal). Reporters have griped about Biden’s personal inaccessibility, especially when compared with Trump’s reliable lack of filter; so far, Biden has only submitted to one extended exchange with reporters and a handful of interviews, though he did do a high-profile Super Bowl Sunday sitdown on CBS and a CNN town hall from Milwaukee, where his answers were either long-winded or strikingly empathetic, depending on your point of view. He has preferred to leave the media terrain to his surrogates, including public-health experts. Earlier this month, the Post calculated that officials had given more than a hundred interviews to national outlets and thirty or so to local ones, reprising a tactic from Biden’s campaign; an official noted to the Post that local news is more trusted than national news, and has allowed Biden’s team to highlight the specific benefits of policies like its coronavirus stimulus package, whose broad popularity in the country has often been eclipsed by shallow Congressional “unity” chatter in DC-centric media. (There’s also a cynical theory, as the Post put it, that “local reporters are more easily dazzled by the White House,” though that theory often does not match practice.) The administration has also given access to Spanish-language and African-American media, and to specialist publications; Jill Biden, the first lady, spoke to Parents magazine, for instance. And Joe Biden has instituted a series of mini-addresses in which he speaks directly to voters—FDR-style “fireside chats” for the social-media age.

Beyond access, there are some early grounds for concern when it comes to questions of press freedom and transparency. Earlier this month, a coalition of press-freedom and civil-liberties groups called on Biden to drop the Trump-era case against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks cofounder who faces charges, under the Espionage Act, that effectively criminalize the practice of journalism. The plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears; ten days ago, Biden’s Justice Department moved to proceed with an appeal against a judge’s decision to bar Assange’s extradition from Britain, where he is currently incarcerated. Reporters Without Borders accused Biden of a “major missed opportunity.” The White House has pledged to publish its visitor logs on a quarterly basis, but it has not made an equivalent commitment around virtual meetings, which, obviously, are very common right now. And, as Philip Eil wrote for CJR last week, Biden’s early barrage of executive orders did not contain any provisions strengthening the Freedom of Information Act or other open-government laws—“an absence,” Eil argued, “that was itself revealing about transparency’s ranking on his list of priorities.”

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A month is too soon to tell how Biden’s record on the deeper issues confronting the press will shape up. His topline public-relations strategy is already much clearer, both in terms of medium and messaging. Access aside, the most consistent media gripe with Biden so far has perhaps been his administration’s tendency to set low bars for itself; as the AP put it on Saturday, a pattern has emerged: “The president and his team would deliberately set expectations low—particularly on vaccinations and school reopening—then try to land a political win by beating that timetable.” Reporters should be alert to such massaging, of course, but we should be careful, too, not to punish Biden for reversing his predecessor’s terrible habit of making false promises at a time of wildly unpredictable crisis. On a visit to Michigan last week, Biden said that he “can’t give you a date when this crisis will end,” instead pleading that he is “doing everything possible to have that day come sooner rather than later.” Scrutinizing the doing is more useful than holding him to the date. Beyond Biden personally, we should continue, too, to scrutinize the conduct of officials across his administration, including in the press office. As Ducklo’s treatment of Palmeri proved, going back to normality can have a dark side.

Below, more on Biden and the press:

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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.