The Media Today

Joe Biden tries and fails to keep the press at bay

June 21, 2019

All is not well in Bidenland. At a fundraiser on Tuesday night, he brought up his past working relationships with James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, two long-deceased segregationist senators. Eastland “Never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” Biden said, imitating Eastland’s Southern accent, but “at least there was some civility.” Biden’s remarks are still in the news this morning. Anonymous sources on his presidential campaign vented their frustrations to reporters from Politico and The Washington Post. As Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and Daniel Lippman, the authors of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, wrote yesterday: “It’s never a healthy sign when a campaign is airing its dirty laundry in the press.”

The sustained focus on Biden’s comments is, in large part, a self-inflicted wound. In trying to clean up the mess, his campaign has struggled to keep its message straight. Taking questions from reporters on Wednesday night, Biden dug himself deeper into his hole: asked if he planned to apologize, he replied, “Apologize for what?” Informed that Cory Booker, a rival for the Democratic nomination, had called for an apology, Biden countered that Booker should be the one to apologize: “He knows better,” Biden said. Booker went on CNN to respond. “I was raised to speak truth to power, and I will never apologize for doing that,” Booker said. “Vice President Biden shouldn’t need this lesson.” Last night, following a phone call with Biden, Booker addressed the episode again on MSNBC. “We had a good, constructive conversation last night,” Booker said. He went on, “I had an opportunity to explain to him” the legacy of racism in America (the call lasted between 15 and 20 minutes). Afterward, per Politico, Biden provided surrogates with bullish talking points that angered Booker’s staff. The political press—which has been sniffing for bad blood between the Democratic candidates—pounced. The rift, it’s safe to say, overshadowed an important new policy announcement from Booker regarding clemency for nonviolent drug offenders.

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The Biden story reinforces a narrative that has framed much coverage of his candidacy. For years, he’s been characterized as prone to gaffes—so much so that The New York Times ran a story last month marveling that Biden had not, at that point, committed one during his nascent presidential bid. So much for that. Several outlets used the word “gaffe” to describe Biden’s comments about Eastland and Talmadge; Marc A. Thiessen, a columnist for the Post, called Biden “a walking, talking gaffe machine.”

A new narrative has emerged, too: that Biden, who is 76 and a centrist, is out of step with swathes of the Democratic base, which takes racial justice seriously. On MSNBC yesterday, Kasie Hunt asked panelists: “Has the Democratic Party moved past Joe Biden?” For Politico, John F. Harris raised a “painful possibility: Grampa Simpson is running for president.”

Biden’s team is well aware of how the campaign is viewed and has crafted press strategy accordingly. As CNN reported last month, the priority is reminding voters how popular Biden was as vice president rather than letting them hear from him now. Staffers argue that his name recognition and standing in the polls are such that he doesn’t need added exposure. Biden has done fewer public events than many of his rivals; when he does appear, he often declines to engage with reporters. (Based on the furor he caused responding to questions on Wednesday, it’s not hard to see why Biden’s minders have worked to keep the press at a distance.) Unlike most other candidates, Biden has not done a TV town hall. Last week, he didn’t show at a multi-candidate dinner in Iowa; this week, he was absent from a Times video story in which 21 candidates answered 18 identical questions.

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It’s too soon to say if Biden’s strategy of press avoidance will backfire. But this week’s fallout has proven that if he doesn’t set the narrative around his campaign, reporters and pundits will set it for him.

Below, more on Joe Biden and the press:

  • Gone fishing: Tonight, Biden will be in attendance at the first multi-candidate event since his comments blew up: an annual fish fry organized by Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, in South Carolina. (Clyburn, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended Biden this week.) Biden will then participate in the South Carolina Democratic Party convention this weekend. The Post’s Paul Farhi reports that MSNBC has won exclusive rights to broadcast the event, an unusual move.
  • (Another) questionable take: This week, Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and conservative voices in the media have defended Biden’s remarks about working civilly with Eastland and Talmadge. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which has previously defended President Trump and Attorney General William Barr, wrote that Biden “underestimated both the modern left’s obsession with racial gesturing and his Democratic competitors’ readiness to exploit race for political gain.”
  • A much better take: Also yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed Biden’s comments on MSNBC: the “very polite relationships” between senators like Biden and their segregationist colleagues “were premised on the fact that those people’s deeply deplorable views actually disenfranchised an entire sector of the electorate,” Coates said. On Wednesday, Coates testified before the House Judiciary Committee about reparations for slavery, an idea he advocated in The Atlantic in 2014.


Some news from the home front: Today CJR debuts the Global issue, which explores the new reality journalists face around the world. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting stories each day from the magazine, starting with an editor’s note by our own Kyle Pope. Stay tuned for more from Turkey, Ghana, the Philippines, Venezuela, and elsewhere. You can already read Ruth Margalit’s piece about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and his ruinous obsession with the press.


Other notable stories:

  • Last night, the Times reported that Trump approved strikes on Iran, then pulled back before they were launched. The Times confirmed that officials did not request that the story be held on national security grounds; the Post, ABC News, and the AP swiftly matched the reporting. Despite mounting tensions, the Post’s Farhi writes, the Pentagon is saying little to the media at the moment. Yesterday, after Iran shot down a US drone, the department held its first on-camera “briefing” in over a year, though it lasted only three minutes and questions were not permitted. In May, CJR’s Andrew McCormick assessed declining media relations with the Pentagon.
  • On Sunday, Trump will appear on NBC’s Meet the Press for the first time as president, a continuation of his efforts to reach beyond his base as his 2020 campaign gears up. After spending 30 hours with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last week, Trump sat down with Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart for an interview that aired last night. The president also invited Time magazine into the Oval Office; at one point, he said Time’s reporters would “go to prison” should they publish details of a letter from Kim Jong Un that Trump had gone off-the-record to show them.
  • Boris Johnson is a step closer to becoming Britain’s prime minister. Yesterday, lawmakers from his Conservative Party voted to send Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, into a head-to-heard runoff; grassroots party members will now have the final say. For CJR, I examined Johnson’s checkered past as a journalist: “Boris Johnson the writer is Boris Johnson the public figure: a spinner of irresistible, but often flimsy stories that have but one aim—the furtherment of Boris Johnson.”
  • In late May, Ebony magazine informed its five digital staffers that their paychecks would be delayed. The Root’s Jay Connor reports that the staffers decided to stop working until they were paid; on June 7, they were all fired. According to the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly, the mass firing tops a turbulent period for the magazine, whose private-equity owners canceled employee health benefits at the beginning of the year.
  • CJR’s McCormick spoke with four journalists who have participated in outreach and training programs for foreign journalists run by the Chinese government. The goal of such programs, according to experts, isn’t just to improve China’s image overseas. “This is about control of the narrative and legitimization of the [Communist] Party’s power and governance,” David Bandurski, of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, says.
  • In 2017, authorities in Cambodia shut down the local bureau of Radio Free Asia, a news outlet funded by the US government, then arrested Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who had worked there as journalists, on espionage charges. Chhin and Sothearin were jailed for nine months, then released under judicial supervision. Today, a court is hearing their appeal against those conditions.
  • And Sarah Sanders may have treated reporters poorly during her time as White House press secretary—but White House correspondents are throwing her a goodbye party regardless. HuffPost’s Maxwell Strachan has more.

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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.