The Media Today

Biden Punts on the Super Bowl. Are the Debates Next?

February 9, 2024
Jim Bourg/Pool via AP

President Biden’s decision to skip the Super Bowl preshow interview is a sign of just how little power the traditional media will have in shaping the 2024 presidential campaign.

The Super Bowl is, well, the Super Bowl of live TV audiences. It’s basically the last mega-event that guarantees a massive viewership across demographics and political ideologies.

It’s the second year in a row Biden is skipping the interview. Asked why, White House communications director Ben LaBolt provided me the same statement he’d given other reporters: “We hope viewers enjoy watching what they tuned in for—the game.”

If even an audience this large can’t entice Biden to sit down with CBS News, it’s hard to imagine the big networks and newspapers will have much luck cajoling him or Trump into doing anything else that might not be in their own interests just for the sake of decorum—or informing the American public about the choice they face in 2024. 

The traditional press is smaller and weaker, and presidential candidates need us less, so there aren’t many reasons for them to submit to the indignities of actually answering tough questions.

To be clear, the pre–Super Bowl interview isn’t exactly a sanctified political tradition. For those not into Roman numerals, this year’s Super Bowl LVIII is the fifty-eighth time the game has been played, but regular pregame POTUS interviews only date back to President Obama, who sat down for one each year he was in the White House, beginning in 2009 (George W. Bush went on camera too, for a softball interview in 2004). Former president Donald Trump was also picky about which pre–Super Bowl interviews he did, refusing to sit down with NBC when it hosted the game in 2018.

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But it’s an ominous sign for an actual sanctified political tradition that could fall next: the presidential debates.

For nearly a half century, the two major-party candidates have met for three general-election debates. But Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, has already refused to participate in every single GOP primary debate, letting his opponents scrabble like crabs in a barrel without him.

The Republican National Committee, the organizing arm of the party that is largely under Trump’s control, has already begun laying the groundwork for this possibility. In 2022, it pulled out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming the bipartisan body that had governed debates since 1987 was “biased” against the GOP. Biden’s campaign has also not yet committed to presidential debates. That puts at risk the one circumstance where both parties’ candidates would be guaranteed to face critical, probing questions with a large national audience tuned in.

Ironically, Trump reacted to Biden’s decision to skip the Super Bowl interview by challenging him to a mano-a-mano. “I’d like to debate him now, because we should debate. We should debate for the good of the country,” he told right-wing radio host Dan Bongino. Biden’s retort, during a quick gaggle with reporters in Las Vegas early this week: “If I were him, I’d want to debate me too. He’s got nothing else to do.”

Biden and Trump have at least one thing in common: they’re happy to talk to the press—when they feel like it. Biden regularly holds impromptu gaggles with reporters as he enters and exits events or heads out from the White House, but has held far fewer news conferences and sit-down interviews than most of his predecessors (even after including last night’s press conference). Trump also agreed to far fewer formal interviews with serious journalists than his predecessors, while prioritizing meet-ups with friendly reporters and influencers. Both, given their age and the questions surrounding their mental acuity, seem to have a lot to be wary of in prolonged, unscripted encounters with real journalists.

When reporters pressed White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the Super Bowl decision and Biden’s low number of network TV interviews, she conceded that Biden has done fewer sit-downs with the networks—“I’m not going to stand here and deny the numbers”—but stressed that the president often gaggles with journalists and has been reaching out to voters on other platforms.

“One of the things that the president has been able to do is communicate in nontraditional ways,” she said. “And he’s done that in a way we have not seen other presidents do. That is true, right? Whether it is podcasts, calling in to radio programs more often, speaking to digital creators, and taping interviews [with] local news stations—that is something that he has done in a more, I would say, regular way.”

Biden at least pays lip service to the importance of a free and critical press; Trump popularized the term “fake news” and literally called journalists “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s White House canceled the traditional daily press briefing and went more than four hundred days without one; Biden’s team immediately reinstated the briefing (which is how reporters got to grill Jean-Pierre about the Super Bowl decision in the first place). Just weeks ago, Trump’s campaign blocked an NBC News journalist from covering an event as the campaign pool reporter.

But while Trump and Biden may treat the press with different levels of respect, their motives are the same: avoiding real interviews. What’s changed from past elections is that the media has less power than ever to force them to do anything. And it’s the voting public that pays the price.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was a busy day in Washington. First, the justices of the Supreme Court heard arguments in Trump’s appeal against his removal from Colorado’s presidential primary ballot, and sounded likely to side with Trump. Then, Robert Hur, the special counsel appointed to investigate Biden’s past mishandling of classified documents, published a report concluding that Biden would not face charges, but taking multiple potshots at his advanced age and the state of his memory. Furious at Hur’s report and fearful of its political ramifications (according to Politico), aides arranged for Biden (who, as noted above, has dodged the press of late) to speak to reporters last night. At one point, Peter Doocy, a Fox News reporter and frequent Biden antagonist, asked Biden, “How bad is your memory?” “My memory is so bad I let you speak,” Biden shot back
  • Also last night, Tucker Carlson released his interview with Russian president Vladimir Putin, which went about as well as expected. Carlson did not ask Putin a single question about his attacks on civilians in Ukraine; indeed, Carlson at times struggled to get a word in as Putin lectured him at length on his view of history and otherwise controlled the flow of the interview. (CNN’s Oliver Darcy blasted Carlson for acting as Putin’s “poodle.”) Carlson did ask Putin whether he would free the jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, though apparently did not raise the case of Alsu Kurmasheva, another US journalist jailed in Russia. Meanwhile, Semafor reports that Carlson also met in Moscow with the whistleblower Edward Snowden, who lives in exile there. (Carlson denied this.)
  • In yesterday’s newsletter, we noted the abrupt recent cancellation of Sundial, a popular show on the Miami public radio station WLRN, and subsequent allegations by Carlos Frías, the host, that he was fired after complaining internally about anti-Latino discrimination at the station. According to the Miami Herald, Catalina Garcia, a news anchor at WLRN, has now quit the station in solidarity with Frías and his team. Elsewhere, in other news about public radio, the Boston Globe reports that an external investigation has been probing the workplace culture at the local station GBH, where staffers have alleged bullying and inappropriate comments by bosses.
  • Last year, Evan Lambert, a correspondent for NewsNation, was violently arrested after pushing back on demands that he end a live broadcast during a press conference held by Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, following the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine. Lambert was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, but the charges were quickly dropped; now East Palestine and surrounding Columbiana County have agreed to pay Lambert an eighty-thousand-dollar settlement, in addition to legal fees. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has more details.
  • And Piers Morgan told Semafor’s Ben Smith that he is giving up his nightly show on TalkTV—a Murdoch-owned network in the UK that has struggled to get off the ground since its launch in 2022—to focus on making content for YouTube, where, he says, his viewership is a lot higher. “Whether by choice or necessity,” Smith writes, Morgan is “leapfrogging dominant American broadcast networks that continue to put most of their resources into old-fashioned linear half hours that are then repackaged online.”

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Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.