Tevi Troy: Barking at the Press

From a story on washingtonexaminer.com by Tevi Troy headlined “Barking at the Press”:

The official transcript of President Joe Biden’s recent presser will make for an interesting historical document. “Do you think,” Fox’s Peter Doocy asked as the event broke up, “inflation is a political liability ahead of the midterms?” “No, it’s a great asset,” Biden responded sarcastically, clearly annoyed by the (rather tame) question. “More inflation. What a stupid son of a b****.” That last part Biden muttered under his breath, but nothing is under your breath when said in front of a microphone. Perhaps in a nod to transparency, the official White House transcript includes the exchange, including the insult, in full.

Biden later called Doocy to apologize, and Doocy laughed it off. But the president’s tetchiness with reporters has become the norm, not the exception. In another recent press conference, RealClearPolitics’s Philip Wegmann asked Biden about his infamous comparison of his opponents to Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis. The president raised his voice and responded, “No, I didn’t say that. Look what I said,” before adding sarcastically, “That is an interesting reading in English. I assume you got into journalism because you like to write.” And then, a day after that press conference, audio engineers caught Biden muttering, “What a stupid question,” in response to one from Fox News’s Jacqui Heinrich on Ukraine.

Biden has a history of barking at reporters who ask questions he does not like. In early January, he snapped at a reporter who asked him why Stacey Abrams did not attend his speech in Georgia, saying, “I’m insulted that you asked.” In 2021, when CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked a departing Biden, “Why are you so confident [Putin] will change his behavior, Mr. President?” Biden turned back, wagged his finger, and said, “What the hell? … When did I say I was confident?” (He later apologized.) When Doocy last November asked Biden about payments for migrants suing the U.S. government, Biden shot back, “If you guys keep sending that garbage out, yeah. But it’s not true.”…

Biden’s displays of anger are not unusual when reporters ask questions he doesn’t like. Most presidents are unhappy with their press coverage. But a look at presidential history reveals that some handle press challenges better than others. These lessons are instructive about what to do when disgruntled with the press, and how Biden might set his media relations on a better path.

One approach is to kill with kindness. Both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush were known for maintaining good relations with reporters. Candidate Bush did have his infamous blowup against Dan Rather in 1988, but that was a planned act, orchestrated by Bush adviser Roger Ailes, and not an accidental display of temper. As president, Bush took a different tack. Maureen Dowd, who was relentless in her rough coverage of Bush, reported how nice he was to her in personal notes and to her family. Ford, for his part, befriended reporters and also would hire more than one of them as his press secretaries.

Unfortunately for both Bush and Ford, treating the press with kid gloves did not appear to be the best approach. The press were not kind to either of them, and both men lost their bids to stay in the White House. Their friendly relations with the press helped them only in posterity.

That said, snarling doesn’t work, either. Richard Nixon had a jibe at the press, years before he became president. After he lost the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon held what he would mistakenly call his “last press conference.” He told the reporters gathered that as a result of his loss, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

As president, though, Nixon could be even worse. In one particularly ugly exchange with CBS’s Robert Pierpoint during an Oct. 26, 1973, press conference, Nixon said, “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger.” When Pierpoint replied, “I’m afraid, sir, that I have that impression,” Nixon then growled back, “You see, one can only be angry at those he respects.” The assembled press gasped, and his family watching on TV winced. Nixon’s efforts didn’t work, as the press were more anti-Nixon than they’ve been against any president until perhaps Donald Trump. Trump himself regularly blistered members of the press in return. He once bluntly told CNN’s Jim Acosta, “You are a rude, terrible person.” Acosta was far from the only one who came in for the Trump treatment. After the recent press conference, RCP’s Wegmann tweeted, “Well, now that makes two presidents who have yelled at me — Trump and Biden.”

Jimmy Carter also did not like the press much, and he made the mistake of letting it show. After Carter won the 1976 election in a close race, he turned to Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie and complained, “If it weren’t for people like you, this election would have been over at 9 o’clock last night.” On another occasion, when the press were asking about the possible resignation of his friend, Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance, Carter muttered to Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, “Vultures.”…

Clearly, kindness and rudeness alone don’t work, but there are more effective strategies. Barack Obama generally got good press, and he was largely careful not to snap at reporters. He did, however, unleash his press team on reporters, such as the time that economic aide Gene Sperling warned Bob Woodward that he would “regret” his criticisms of the administration on a 2013 spending showdown. According to the AP’s Julie Mason, when it came to dealing with reporters, Obama aides would “shoot first and ask questions later.” The press may not have liked some of Obama’s aides, but the president himself largely stayed out of the fray.

As for George W. Bush, he did have an infamous hot mic moment when as a candidate, he spotted a reporter and said to vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, “There’s Adam Clymer — major-league a**hole from the New York Times.” Cheney responded by saying, “Oh yeah, he is, big time.”…This incident was not in response to a specific question, but to general dissatisfaction with Clymer’s reporting.

The Big Time incident was out of character with how Bush as president would treat the press. While Bush did not get great press coverage, he did maintain what New York Times White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller called “a friendly, towel-snapping relationship” with the White House press corps. In fact, journalism professor James Mueller titled his book on Bush and the media Towel Snapping the Press: Bush’s Journey From Locker-Room Antics to Message Control. Mueller argued that Bush was personally charming to reporters even as he exercised tight message discipline in dealing with the press. The Bush White House was so leak-free in its early days that reporters complained about the absence of leaks. As media expert Ken Auletta put it, “From Bush on down, talking to the press off the record is generally frowned upon and equated with leaking, which is a deadly sin in the Bush White House.”

But even as he didn’t leak or go off-message, Bush maintained good relations with reporters on a personal level, and enjoyed joking around with them. In 2007, Bush teased reporter Mike Allen about his organization, the then-unknown Politico, asking him, “Michael, who do you work for?” When Allen responded, “Mr. President, I work for Politico.com,” Bush said, “Pardon me? Politico.com? … You want a moment to explain [it] to the American people?” Allen gamely responded, “Mr. President, thank you for the question.” Bush far preferred this kind of joshing with reporters to snapping at them. Perhaps the most prominent snap at a reporter in the Bush White House came toward the end of the administration, when Bush’s dog Barney bit Reuters reporter Jon Decker on his right index finger.

Ronald Reagan was another president who preferred to display wit rather than anger in the face of reporter onslaughts. Reagan had strict message discipline, famously putting out a message of the day and having his team stick to it. He rarely got great coverage from the press, but he generally and genially avoided tussling with them….

Press relations are not everything, as there are a host of factors that determine whether a president will be successful. And one certainly can’t attribute every reelection loss, or Nixon’s resignation, to the president’s attitude toward the press being either too nice or too nasty. There are many other factors at work. Even for the presidents who got the tone right, they did complain, often justifiably, about their coverage. But the president’s attitude toward the press can also be reflective of overall political talent.

The public sees from presidential interactions with the press how leaders handle pressure. Joking with the press, even when they are critical, shows a certain level of savoir-faire. Barking at them shows that they are getting under your skin. And regardless of whether it’ll change their coverage, churlishness is a message to the wider public that a president surely doesn’t want to send.

Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author, most recently, of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.

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