CJR’s Jon Allsop on “President Biden’s First Year With the Press”

From CJR’s Jon Allsop on “President Biden’s first year with the press”:

JOE BIDEN WAS INAUGURATED AS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES a year ago tomorrow, and as the anniversary has approached, the “first year” takes have intensified to a deluge. These started in earnest a month or so ago, reminding me of the time that ABC assessed Biden’s first hundred days after eighty-one days (though I guess the end of his first calendar year was somewhat less arbitrary). Since then, we’ve seen photo essays, scorecards, and stats—How many judges did he appoint? How long did he spend at his homes in Delaware?—as well as analyses weighing his performance across key policy areas, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis.

We’ve seen similar reflections on the state of Biden’s relationship with the press. Last February, after Biden had been in office for a month, I wrote that early pundit giddiness at the (mostly) respectful normality of his press operation—Van Jones on Jen Psaki’s first briefing as press secretary: “there was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense”—had given way to frustration with Biden’s personal inaccessibility to reporters, even though Psaki had restored the daily briefing and other officials were talking regularly to national and local outlets, including some serving Spanish-speaking, Black, or niche audiences. Eleven months on, and these trends have mostly continued, not least the loud griping about Biden’s lack of availability. Last month, White House reporters at major outlets complained to Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein that their interview requests had largely gone unanswered: Biden had done fourteen sit-downs and town halls on TV but only three with print outlets, compared to Donald Trump’s thirty by the same point and Barack Obama’s forty-two. According to Martha Joynt Kumar of the White House Transition Project, which tracks such things, Biden has also held fewer formal press conferences than any of his immediate predecessors had by this point: just nine, compared with twenty-two for Trump and twenty-seven for Obama.

The administration has pushed back on claims that it’s falling short of its lofty transparency promises. Psaki has said that reporters don’t need to be sat on “embroidered cushions” in a formal setting to ask questions, with Biden fielding impromptu queries in the course of his daily business more often than any president since Bill Clinton; press officials also note that Biden has both toured the country and used social media to share his policies, chatting with influencers (Olivia Rodrigo, Bill Nye the Science Guy) to meet young voters where they are (which is not watching cable news). Still, critics point out that the latter aren’t hard journalistic settings, and that informal Q&As are often too brief for rigorous scrutiny, with Biden able to dodge questions he doesn’t want to field, or drop a hot talking point and run. Even some of Biden’s political allies have expressed concern about his lack of deeper engagement with traditional media, arguing that he’s ceding the narrative about his presidency to louder, more hostile voices. “Every network would give him time if he asked for it,” Kurt Bardella, a Democratic adviser, told the New York Times. “He needs to use the trappings of the presidency.”

Transparency, of course, is about more than just press conferences. Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report by Leonard Downie, Jr., a former executive editor of the Washington Post, that sought to assess the question through the broader lens of press freedom. It concluded that there is a “night and day” difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to their rhetoric toward the press, and praised Biden on other grounds, too. His administration moved on day one to restore the credibility and independence of Voice of America, a US-funded international broadcaster, after Trump rampantly politicized it. After initially defending a Trump-era move to subpoena the phone records of several Post reporters in the course of a leak investigation, meanwhile, Biden’s Justice Department reversed course and pledged to stop surveilling reporters. (Biden himself catalyzed this promise. The setting for his doing so? An informal Q&A.)

Still, the new policy around surveillance contains some gray areas and has yet to be enshrined in formal prosecutorial guidelines, let alone federal law. And in various other areas, Biden’s press-freedom record is spottier still. Public-records experts told CPJ that responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests has not markedly improved on Biden’s watch. For reasons of explicit diplomatic self-interest, the administration refused to personally punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite concluding publicly that he ordered the murder of the dissident Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and the US withdrew, officials made it easier for endangered journalists who worked with American outlets to get US visas, without offering equivalent practical support to help them evacuate. The administration has pushed ahead with a Trump-era move to extradite Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, from the UK on espionage charges that effectively criminalize certain routine reporting practices. And it has often impeded reporting at the US border with Mexico.

Which brings us back to access. I wrote last March, amid a media feeding frenzy on Biden’s early immigration record, that while access to the border is important, it’s not everything. Broadly speaking, a similar frame might be applied to the entirety of Biden’s early relations with the press. Access, again, is important, and more of it would be better—especially access to Biden personally. But access to the president is not the be-all and end-all of access to the presidency: Psaki has continued to hold regular briefings, and various departments and agencies under Biden’s command, including State and Defense, have done likewise. What officials say remains more important than the format in which they say it. (Trump often used his relative accessibility to reporters to make them props in his “fake news” rhetoric.) And—despite the outsized attention paid to his meager interview-and-presser metrics—access has little to do with Biden’s most egregious media missteps, which, to my mind, all come under the press-freedom banner. A successful espionage prosecution of Assange would be much worse for American journalism than Biden sitting down with the Times columnist David Brooks but snubbing his news-side colleagues.

Ultimately, access to the president is only useful if reporters do something useful with it. After Biden took office, various members of the press clamored obsessively for him to hold a formal press conference, but when he finally acquiesced, in March, White House correspondents peppered him with a barrage of inane questions about his political standing without asking once about COVID—a missed opportunity, theGrio’s April Ryan (who was present but not called to ask a question) noted at the time, to bring up vaccine-equity gaps among other important topics. Today, at 4pm Eastern, Biden will host what, by one count, will be his “first formal solo news conference at the White House” since then. It’s already being billed as an opportunity for Biden to reset at a difficult moment in his presidency. It’s a chance for the press to reset, too.

More on Biden, the media, and politics:

  • Friends like these: Politico’s Max Tani and Alex Thompson write that columnists who have generally been supportive of Biden’s presidency—including Brooks and Thomas Friedman, of the Times, and Jennifer Rubin, of the Post—are starting to wobble. Depending on who you ask, their critiques “are either evidence that Biden does need to break with the left-wing activists who are overrepresented on Twitter; or the classic whinings of clueless Beltway pundits,” Tani and Thompson write. “Either way, Biden is losing the confidence of commentators he and his team have long valued. Brooks’ opinion doesn’t matter to many elected Democrats, but it matters to Biden himself.”
  • “The Trouble with Frictionless Briefings”: For CJR’s recent magazine on political journalism after Trump, Hunter Walker, a former White House correspondent for Yahoo News who now has a Substack, reflected on the pluses and minuses of the Biden administration’s approach to the press. The “existential” Trump-era threat to the daily briefing has passed, as has Trump’s barrage of lies, Walker wrote. “Yet the White House press corps has lost something from the Trump years: nearly unfettered access to behind-the-scenes drama and the presidential id, through freewheeling speeches and stream-of-consciousness updates on Twitter. Biden’s highly professional press shop makes it harder for the media to penetrate the depths of the White House—internal debates, developing ideas—and to locate pressure points that can take things off script.

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