Biden has promised a media reset after Trump – so why so few press conferences? | Joe Biden
OWhen Joe Biden finished providing a televised update on the administration’s response to the coronavirus last week, aides began guiding the press to the exit as reporters shouted questions. Biden declined to respond.
“Guys, we’ll talk about that later,” he said. Then came a question of NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell He Couldn’t Ignore“Perhaps a press conference soon, Mr. President?” We would look forward to that.
“Me too,” he replied.
The next day, the White House announced that Biden would hold the 10th press conference of his presidency, far fewer than any of his recent predecessors in their first year in office. It was scheduled for Wednesday, on the eve of his first anniversary as president.
When Biden steps to the pulpit, he does so in the face of a myriad of challenges and setbacks — and a press corps eager to ask him questions about it all.
His national agenda has stalled in the Senate, where his push for suffrage legislation has also hit a wall; inflation is the highest it has been in nearly four decades; and the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s vaccine or testing mandate, a key part of its pandemic plan, now in its third year.
The goodwill Biden enjoyed at the start of his presidency has largely dried up, as his approval rating has fallen to 42% from 53% when he took office, according to FiveThirtyEight’s public polling average. .
But it also comes amid growing calls from journalists and press freedom advocates for Biden to engage more directly with journalists.
In a sweeping shift from Donald Trump, Biden said journalists are “indispensable to the functioning of democracy,” which the president has repeatedly warned is under threat at home and abroad. Yet press access to the president has been limited.
Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report assessing the president’s approach to the national media as well as his administration’s support for press freedom around the world over the past week. of his first year in office.
Titled Night and Day, the report praised Biden’s White House for a “nearly complete reversal of the Trump administration’s unprecedented and damaging hostility,” which it said “seriously damaged media credibility.” of information and has often spread misinformation around the world”.
Still, the report criticized the president for his limited availability to reporters. As he completes his freshman year, Biden has held fewer press conferences and participated in fewer interviews than nearly all of his recent predecessors.
Biden held just nine official press conferences in his first year, according to research compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. Trump had held 22 and Barack Obama 27 at the same time of their presidencies.
Only Ronald Reagan, whose public appearances were curtailed following an assassination attempt in March 1981, held fewer press conferences in his first year. But Reagan did 59 interviews that year, compared to Biden, who did just 22.
Trump, who has called the media “enemies of the American people” and once praised a congressman who assaulted a reporter, gave 92 interviews in his first year. Many of these interviews were with friendly media, but they also included major networks and outlets he frequently attacked, such as the New York Times and ABC News.
Biden answers questions more frequently than his predecessors, but responds less, according to Kumar’s tally. These impromptu exchanges with journalists often follow scheduled remarks or public appearances.
“For the president, it’s about how you use your time? Kumar said. “And for Biden, he wanted to use his time to privately negotiate his policies.”
She expects Wednesday’s press conference to mark the start of a more public phase for the White House as it tries to build support for Biden’s agenda ahead of next year’s midterms. .
Asked about Biden’s relative lack of one-on-one interviews and official press conferences, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back, arguing that the president frequently interacted with the press and posed questions to reporters several times. times per week.
“I think the American people saw him there, answering questions,” she said. “He will continue to be. It is an important part of his engagement with the press and the public.
Due to the brevity of his interactions and his tendency to make mistakes when speaking off the cuff, Kumar said Biden relies heavily on his cabinet and team to communicate the White House agenda.
“Biden doesn’t feel the need to talk all the time,” she said. “From his perspective, it’s not just the president but the entire administration and Biden is willing to let them do the talking for him.”
It’s a stark contrast to the Trump years, when the president regularly contradicted his team and press briefings were erratic, hostile and riddled with lies. One of Trump’s press officers, Stephanie Grisham, declined to hold briefings.
“We’ve gotten used to Trump’s way of communicating,” she added, “but Biden is very different.”
After four years of attacks on the press by the former president and his team, Biden saw resetting media relations as a “high priority,” Psaki said.
“Our goal is – has been – to restore normalcy and engagement with journalists, whether we agree or not, whether or not there is a partisan tilt towards an outlet,” he said. she stated. “And I think we conducted ourselves accordingly.”
Briefings and fleeting exchanges with the press are no substitutes for hearing directly and at length from the president, said Leonard Downie Jr, author of the CPJ report and former editor of the Washington Post.
“It’s still the only opportunity for a lot of journalists who cover Washington and cover the administration, who know what they’re doing, to be able to ask questions and in-depth follow-up questions,” Downie told reporters. .
Downie acknowledged the downsides of a press conference: the potential for political theater, the demagoguery of reporters, and the filibuster of the president. Still, he said the events presented a “valuable” opportunity for Americans to hear directly from the president – and for the world to see a leader answer tough questions through a free and independent press.
The CPJ report credited the Biden administration with taking steps to protect press freedom, but warned that more work was needed.
Biden restored the editorial independence of the US Agency for Global Media, home of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, deeply undermined by the Trump administration. Hours after his inauguration, Biden fired the agency’s chief executive appointed by Trump.
In July, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo prohibiting federal prosecutors from using subpoenas, warrants or court orders to obtain telephone and electronic records of journalists in connection with leak investigations. , imposing sharp new limits on a practice used by both Trump and Obama. administrative.
And a Justice Department spokesperson told Downie that its investigations into local police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville and Phoenix would include law enforcement’s treatment of journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests.
Yet despite Biden’s promise to lead the most transparent administration in the country’s history, journalists and experts interviewed for CPJ’s report said there had been ‘little improvement’ in responsiveness. from government agencies to journalists’ requests for information and that “too many briefings and conversations” with administration officials are conducted on “deep backgrounds” and not accountable.
Press freedom advocates told CPJ that the White House’s actions fell “fall short” of its lofty rhetoric. In the report, they faulted the administration for failing to extract Afghan journalists during the chaotic US military withdrawal, as well as failing to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the columnist’s murder. from the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi.
It has also raised concerns among press freedom advocates with the Justice Department’s 2019 decision to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, which they say , could set a “dangerous precedent to use against journalists trying to do their job”.
“As press freedom advocates and journalists, we need the United States to stand up and affirm…that the First Amendment values press freedom,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of CPJ. “He cannot credibly do this on the international stage if press freedom is not fully respected at home in the United States.”