The Media Today

How will Biden’s new team treat the press?

November 30, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden’s White House communications team is now in place. Jennifer Psaki, a former communications director for President Obama and CNN contributor, will serve as press secretary, with Karine Jean-Pierre, a Biden campaign adviser and former MSNBC contributor, as her principal deputy. Kate Bedingfield, who was the communications director for Biden’s campaign, will hold the same role in the White House, with Pili Tobar, who previously worked for Senator Chuck Schumer, as her deputy. Ashley Etienne will be the communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris, whose spokesperson will be Symone Sanders—a top adviser to Bernie Sanders’s (no relation) 2016 campaign and Biden’s 2020 bid—and Elizabeth A. Alexander will be communications director for the First Lady. As the Washington Post, which was first to report the appointments, noted, Biden’s comms shop will be entirely run by women—a first. (Kayleigh McEnany, the sometime current White House press secretary, raged at that characterization, calling the Post “DISCREDITED” and claiming that Trump’s senior press team is also “ALL FEMALE.” Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, noted that Brian Morgenstern and Judd Deere, McEnany’s deputies, were likely surprised to learn this.)

The appointments—and those of Psaki and Bedingfield, in particular—feel almost overwhelming in their normality, a sentiment that has been almost ubiquitous, and often positive, in mainstream coverage of Biden’s personnel picks so far. The sentiment extends to press relations: unlike their respective predecessors, it’s hard to imagine Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, angrily making a reporter pinpoint Ukraine on a map, or Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for intelligence chief, following QAnon accounts and a 9/11 truther on Twitter. (Blinken did appear on Sesame Street to talk about refugees with Grover, and Haines once owned an independent bookstore—named Baltimore’s finest by the local City Paper—that hosted erotica nights. She also consulted for Palantir, the data-mining firm founded by the Trump ally Peter Thiel.) And it extends to the president-elect himself: as Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, wrote last week, where Trump has boosted certain Fox hosts, OAN, and Newsmax, Biden’s closest media relationships have been with the likes of David Ignatius, Tom Friedman, and Maureen Dowd. (Jon Meacham, the historian and former Newsweek editor, helped craft Biden’s victory speech, then praised it on MSNBC without disclosing his input.) “It seems that what Donald Trump did for the once-dying industry of cable news, Joe Biden may do for the dusty old newspaper column,” Smith wrote. “What a time to be George Will!”

From the magazine: ‘We need to radically redefine who we are serving.’

If you thought this all sounds like a nostalgia trip you wouldn’t be the only one. The Washington social scene is eagerly awaiting the return of schmoozefests such as the White House correspondents’ dinner, and White House reporters are hoping that Psaki will reinstate the daily press briefing. (That’s yet to be confirmed, but Politico recently reported that the daily briefing is indeed coming back, as part of a broader “return to ‘normalcy.’”) Yesterday, Biden’s doctor said that the president-elect broke bones in his foot while playing with his dog, and the transparency of the announcement drew contrasts with the messaging debacle that followed Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19 last month (though Biden’s use of a foot boot, which his doctor says he will now need, would have been hard to cover up). All of this (aside, arguably, from the return of the correspondents’ dinner) is indeed cause for tentative optimism. But it isn’t, in itself, a victory for the press: as Dan Froomkin, a media critic who writes the blog Press Watch, put it recently, “simply returning to pre-Trump standards isn’t nearly enough.”

Biden’s recent record with the press is far from perfect. Last year, after his late-ish entry into the Democratic primary, he largely skirted the national media—an apparent bid to limit his potential to commit “gaffes” (long a staple of Biden coverage) and leave intact voters’ memories of Cool Uncle Joe, Obama’s vice president—though he did give interviews to local news stations. As Biden’s campaign flailed in Iowa and New Hampshire, he opened up more, but once he’d locked up the nomination, the pandemic hit, and he mostly stayed in his basement—a perfectly understandable public-health precaution that nonetheless didn’t come with generous workarounds for press access; at one point, Biden went three months without holding a news conference, virtual or otherwise. Since the election, there have been further small signs of strain between Biden and the press corps—a statement without taking questions here, his motorcade leaving behind pool reporters there. (Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, called the latter incident “unacceptable”stronger language than the WHCA publicly mustered when the current White House comms team exposed reporters to COVID-19.) We’ve heard grumbling, too, about the likelihood that Biden’s administration will be a lot less leaky—and a lot more on-message—than Trump’s has been.

Leaks can do more harm than good—time and again, Trump administration officials have used the cover of anonymity to launder their grudges, lies, and attempts at ass-covering into the public record, and reporters have gone along with it. Leaks can also, however, bring to light crucial issues of public concern. Here, too, Biden has a checkered past; he was vice president of an administration that prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than any prior administration, a record we can only hope he doesn’t seek to emulate as president. So far, he’s stuffed his national-security apparatus with familiar, Obama-era faces; it remains to be seen how he’ll staff his Justice Department, which will, among other cases, inherit the troubling—from a press-freedom standpoint—espionage charges against Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks.

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Ultimately, the Biden administration will be run by politicians whose interests—and inclination to transparency—will frequently diverge from those of the press and the public, even if they drop the “fake news” slurs and bring their dogs to the briefing room, rather than binders full of anti-media oppo research. Their motives and associations will require sharp scrutiny. Amid the recent nostalgia, some reporters have sought to offer just that; on Saturday, for example, Eric Lipton and Kenneth P. Vogel, of the Times, reported on transparency concerns around two firms, WestExec Advisors and Pine Island Capital Partners, with various ties to Biden nominees including Blinken, Haines, and Psaki. (Blinken cofounded WestExec, a consulting company, and Haines and Psaki say they served it as a consultant and contractor, respectively. WestExec listed them both as principals.) Biden’s transition team told Lipton and Vogel that Blinken is working to disclose the firm’s clients, which reportedly include an Air Force contractor that makes surveillance drones, but that pledge has been complicated by WestExec’s honoring of nondisclosure agreements, and federal rules that don’t require complete transparency. (Already, John Cornyn, a Republican senator, started wielding the story as a confirmation threat.)

On Twitter, Cliff Levy, an associate managing editor and metro editor at the Times, said that the story reflected the paper’s core mission: “to scrutinize the incoming administration just as thoroughly as we did the outgoing one.” That sentiment is laudable, and a return to pre-Trump-era media complacency must be avoided at all costs. The words “just as thoroughly,” though, also give reason for pause—outlets including the Times have, after all, been known to indulge in false equivalency in the past. Transparency questions must be asked, but they must not, in and of themselves, be equated with the overt corruption of the last four years in the name of some outdated instinct of partisan fairness. Proportionality is the media’s end of the bargain, at any rate. On their end, Psaki, Bedingfield, and their team must provide the transparency.

Below, more on Biden and Trump:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s magazine on this transitional moment for journalism, Jack Herrera spoke with Tasneem Raja, the editor in chief of The Oaklandside, a nonprofit news organization in Oakland, California, that launched earlier this year amid the pandemic, and has aimed to build its journalism around its readers’ information needs. “We need to radically redefine who we are serving,” Raja told Herrera, of the media industry. “That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with over the past nearly ten years of my career: Who is this work for?”
  • Last week, two Washington Post reporters shared details of their personal experiences with COVID-19. Jacqueline Alemany, who writes a politics newsletter, fielded messages from Republican sources checking in on her, and noted the “dissonance” between their private concern and their party’s public rhetoric about the virus. And Tim Carman, a food reporter and columnist at the paper, worried that he would lose his sense of taste, rendering him unable to do his job; he didn’t, but COVID hit him hard regardless.
  • For Undark, Jane C. Hu profiles Eric Feigl-Ding, a Harvard-trained scientist who has become a popular Twitter chronicler of the pandemic, rankling some of his peers. “As Feigl-Ding’s influence has grown,” Hu writes, “so have the voices of his critics, many of them fellow scientists who have expressed ongoing concern over his tweets, which they say are often unnecessarily alarmist, misleading, or sometimes just plain wrong.”
  • For CJR, Pete Vernon profiles Bill Green, a well-known retired journalist in Maine who enthusiastically backed Susan Collins, the state’s Republican senator, for reelection. (She won.) “Green’s decades on the air as an apolitical cheerleader for the state and its people engendered a sense of familiarity and trust among Mainers,” Vernon writes. “Now, he had picked a side.” (Come for the politics, stay for the “rat’s patoot.”)
  • On Friday, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was assassinated in an ambush on the outskirts of Tehran. Yesterday, Kayhan, a hardline Iranian newspaper, published an opinion piece suggesting that officials attack the Israeli city of Haifa—and ensure “heavy human casualties”—should that country’s government be found to have been behind Fakhrizadeh’s killing. The AP’s Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell have more.
  • Across France, demonstrators including journalists again took to the streets in protest of a security bill that would, in certain circumstances, criminalize the sharing of images identifying police officers; in Paris, police fired tear gas, and wounded Ameer Alhalbi, an award-winning Syrian photojournalist. I wrote about the bill last week; since then, the French prime minister pledged that an independent commission will re-evaluate it.
  • Chun Han Wong, of the Wall Street Journal, profiles Lu Yuyu, who was arrested in China in 2016 for his work tracking protests in the country online. Lu was finally freed in June, but he remains under police surveillance and hasn’t returned to documenting protests. Authorities warned Lu not to talk to the press, but he decided to speak with the Journal because “being silenced would mean they can act brazenly and lock you down.”
  • Morgane Le Cam, of Le Monde, spoke with Ignace Sossou, a journalist in Benin who was jailed on “harassment” charges after he accurately tweeted a prosecutor’s public remarks. (Sossou was also freed in June.) He told Le Cam that he used his time in jail to report, but that he still doesn’t feel free to do his job, and that his country is trending more and more toward authoritarianism. You can read the interview here (in French).
  • And Oliver Dowden, Britain’s culture minister, told the Mail on Sunday that Netflix should warn viewers of The Crown, its wildly popular drama series about the royal family, that the show is a work of fiction. “Without this,” Dowden said, “I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”

ICYMI: Emmanuel Macron’s press-freedom hypocrisy

Correction: Trump called into Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox News, not on Fox Business as this post previously stated.

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.