Charlotte Klein in Vanity Fair: Joe Biden’s Press Strategy Is Vexing Reporters

From a story by Charlotte Klein headlined “Joe Biden’s Press Strategy Is Vexing Reporters”:

After Joe Biden won the 2020 election, The New York TimesPeter Baker recalls putting in a request to interview the incoming 46th president, as he’d sat down with all the White House occupants going back to Bill Clinton, and made “the point that new presidents tend to talk to The New York Times.” Their response? “They basically said, thanks very much, and that was it,” Baker told me. “They never had any interest in it.” While Baker, who is currently on book leave, admits that “the best stories never come from presidential interviews” and “we’ll live perfectly fine if we don’t get them,” the Biden White House is nevertheless “raising questions by not doing these things.”

While Biden was always expected to be more low-key than his media-obsessed predecessor, the president’s level of engagement with the press during his first year in office has left White House reporters grumbling and Democratic allies urging him to more aggressively sell his agenda to the American people, amid weakpolls and fear of a 2022 midterms rout. Biden has been giving speeches around the country on issues, like infrastructure, and spoke Thursday in defense of democracy, but has hardly seized the media megaphone to combat the Republican assault on voting rights and MAGA takeover of state-level elections. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who dominated headlines and cable-news chyrons for four years, did multiple TV and radio hits the past couple weeks, trying to inject himself into the news cycle as the possibility of a 2024 run looms.

Biden, 79, is said to be planning to run for reelection in three years, and will inevitably face questions about his age and fluency in articulating the problems the country faces. A lengthy sit-down interview could help squash such concerns—or fuel them—depending on the president’s performance. At this point, says one White House reporter, the Biden team appears to have “made the calculation that the risks of doing these sorts of interviews are too great or the benefit isn’t significant enough.”…

Though Biden spoke by phone to Times columnist David Brooks earlier this year, he has yet to sit down with a reporter from the paper—or one from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, or Reuters. By the end of November of his first term, Biden had done 18 interviews, compared to 89 for Trump and 141 for Barack Obama in the same period, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist….Fourteen of Biden’s interviews so far have been for TV (including three CNN town halls); he’s appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, his first late-night show appearance as president. Biden has done just three interviews for print, beginning with People, compared to 30 for Trump and 42 for Obama. Rather than more sustained sit-downs, the president has opted for impromptu sessions with the press, something Biden does—as the White House is quick to point out—on a regular basis, and more frequently than his predecessors. “What you get is his position; what you don’t get is his thinking,” Kumar said. “Both in an interview and in a news conference you’re going to have to elaborate on policy,” Kumar said, noting that these settings are where “you really find the depth of understanding—or lack of it.”

Biden had only done one interview with a regional or local outlet by the end of November—compared to 11 for Trump and 17 for Obama in the same period. When recently confronted about the paucity of interviews, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s schedule “has been quite packed,” but hoped to “be able to add some local interviews in the next couple of weeks.” The last time Biden sat for an extended national broadcast interview was in August with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, a one-on-one focused on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan during which Biden made a handful of inaccurate or misleading statements. Baker said that perhaps the White House is trying to avoid such mistakes from Biden, though noted “he’s always, historically, been his own best salesman” and that “there’s always a trade-off when you decide to cut off the press.”

Biden is no stranger to media scrutiny, having been under the Washington microscope for half a century. As a senator during the Clinton administration, he would “talk at length at the stakeout” and be “the last member of Congress leaving the driveway,” recalled Kumar. He maintained that attitude toward the press as vice president in the Obama White House; Baker recalled Biden “always seemed perfectly happy” to take questions—even as his boss grew increasingly distant from the press corps—and would even have the media over to the residence for an annual barbecue.

Weeks after winning the presidency, Times columnist Ben Smith heralded a return to “media’s good old days,” when prominent newspaper columnists, rather than right-wing Fox News hosts, had the president’s ear. That was the case in the last Democratic administration, as Obama gravitated toward The New Yorker’s David Remnick and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and held off-the-record meetings with columnists and editorial writers in the Roosevelt Room. During the Obama years, noted Smith, Biden “was particularly attentive to the wise men of Washington,” such as the TimesThomas Friedman, who told me he hasn’t yet sat down with the president since taking office.

“In fairness to Biden, because of the pandemic, that kind of regular roundtable you just can’t do,” Friedman said, in reference to Obama’s columnist gatherings. “So I couldn’t tell you what’s pandemic and what’s new administration.” Either way, Friedman—who says he has “all the access I want or need, but I want little and need little”—doesn’t seem concerned or “sense an iron curtain,” as he put it, noting he’s engaged with other members of the administration….

The White House sees engaging with traditional news outlets, like the Times, as merely part of its strategy for getting its message to the public. Meanwhile, an official told me, they reached around 31 million people last month on Facebook alone and, across all digital accounts, are hitting around 11 million video views per week. Whether it’s Olivia Rodrigo’s pro-vaccination video or Biden joining Bill Nye in a TikTok video to promote infrastructure and social-spending bills, the White House is looking beyond the press corps, not unlike Obama sitting “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis to promote his health care policy.

“President Biden’s number one priority is delivering for the American people and making sure they know how government can make their lives better by meeting them where they are,” said deputy White House press secretary Chris Meagher, “whether through traveling across the country as he did this week, putting out content on the large White House social platforms or joining influencers on theirs, or engaging directly with reporters several times a week.”…

White House reporters haven’t always been their best advocates when it comes to making the case for more access. After complaining earlier this year that Biden hadn’t participated in a formal, solo news conference, they failed in that setting to ask a single question about the COVID-19 pandemic, while finding time to question Biden about his 2024 plans and potentially running against Trump. Though reporters didn’t do themselves any favors with that performance, CBS News Radio’s Steven Portnoy, who is currently president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, points out what can be lost by bypassing traditional forms of engagement with the press. For instance, he said, Biden in November “met over the span of a week with counterparts from China, Canada, and Mexico, and when those meetings were over, we got no substantive sense from him of what he feels he accomplished or even what positions he took on behalf of the American people.”…

“We’re not asking this for just for ourselves. We’re asking on behalf of readers of The New York Times, listeners of CBS News Radio, and every other member of the public,” Portnoy said. “But we’re also asking for history. Because the record requires the American president’s view on the substantive and the mundane, and that record is written in large part through the president’s exchanges through the press. The more formal the exchange, the more the public is apt to learn about what’s on the man’s mind.” Plus, Portnoy added, “Biden would give a hell of a radio interview, which, your story should note, he hasn’t [yet] done.”

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