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The president has none of Trump’s hostility to the press but frustration is growing over a lack of engagement with reporters
When Joe Biden finished delivering a televised update on the administration’s coronavirus response last week, aides began to usher the press towards the exit as reporters shouted questions. Biden declined to answer.
“Folks, we’ll talk about that later,” he said. Then came a question from NBC’S Kelly O’Donnell he couldn’t ignore: “Maybe 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 during their first year in office. It was scheduled for Wednesday, on the eve of his first anniversary as president.
When Biden steps up to the lectern, he does so facing myriad challenges and setbacks – and a press corps eager to ask him about all of it.
His domestic agenda is stalled in the Senate, where his push on voting rights 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-test mandate, a key part of his plan to combat the pandemic, now in its third year.
The goodwill Biden enjoyed early in his presidency has mostly dried up, as his approval rating has fallen to 42% from 53% when he took office, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of public polls.
But it also comes amid the growing calls from journalists and press freedom advocates for Biden to engage more directly with reporters.
In a sharp shift from Donald Trump, Biden has 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 grading the president’s approach to the media at home as well as his administration’s support for press freedom globally during his first year in office.
Titled Night and Day, the report praised the Biden White House for an “almost complete reversal of the Trump administration’s unprecedentedly pervasive and damaging hostility”, which it said “seriously damaged the news media’s credibility and often spread misinformation around the world”.
Yet the report criticized the president for his limited availability to journalists. As he ends his first year, Biden has held fewer press conferences and participated in fewer interviews than nearly all of his recent predecessors.
Biden has held just nine formal news conferences during 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 point in their presidencies.
Only Ronald Reagan, whose public appearances were scaled back following an assassination attempt in March 1981, held fewer press conferences during his first year. But Reagan did 59 interviews that year, compared with Biden, who has only done 22.
Trump, who labeled the media the “enemy of the American people” and once praised a congressman who assaulted a reporter, did 92 interviews during his first year. Many of those interviews were with friendly outlets, but they also included the major networks and media organizations he frequently impugned, such as the New York Times and ABC News.
Biden does field questions more frequently than his predecessors, but takes fewer of them, according to Kumar’s tally. These impromptu exchanges with reporters often follow scheduled remarks or public appearances.
“For the president, it is a question of how do you use your time?” Kumar said. “And for Biden, he has wanted to use his time negotiating privately on his policies.”
She expects Wednesday’s press conference to mark the beginning of a more public phase for the White House, as it tries to build support for Biden’s agenda before next year’s midterms.
Asked about Biden’s relative lack of one-on-one interviews and formal news conferences, White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, pushed back, arguing that the president interacted with the press frequently and questions from reporters multiple times per week.
“I think the American people have seen him out there, answering questions,” she said. “He will continue to be. That’s an important part of his engagement with the press and the public.”
Due to the brief nature of his interactions, and his tendency to make mistakes when speaking extemporaneously, Kumar said Biden relies heavily on his cabinet and his team to communicate the White House’s agenda.
“Biden doesn’t feel the need to talk all the time,” she said. “From his viewpoint, it’s not just the president but the whole administration and Biden is willing to let them speak in his stead.”
It is a stark contrast to the Trump years, when the president regularly contradicted his team and press briefings were irregular, hostile and rife with falsehoods. One of Trump’s press secretaries, Stephanie Grisham, refused to hold any briefings at all.
“We got used to the Trump 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 relations with the media as a “big priority”, Psaki said.
“Our objective is to – has been to – re-instill normalcy and engagement with reporters, whether we agree or disagree, whether there is a partisan tilt to an outlet or not,” she said. “And I think we have conducted ourselves accordingly.”
Press briefings and fleeting exchanges with the press are not stand-ins for hearing directly and at length from the president, said Leonard Downie Jr, author of the CPJ report and a former executive editor of the Washington Post.
“It is still the only opportunity for large numbers of the press who cover Washington and cover the administration, who are knowledgable about what they’re doing, to be able to ask questions and follow-up questions in depth,” Downie told reporters.
Downie acknowledged the drawbacks of a press conference: the potential for political theater, grandstanding by reporters and filibustering by the president. Yet he said events present a “valuable” opportunity for Americans to hear directly from the president – and for the world to see a leader field tough question from a free and independent press.
The CPJ report credited the Biden administration for taking steps to protect press freedoms, but cautioned that more work was needed.
Biden restored the editorial independence of the United States 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 dismissed the agency’s Trump-appointed chief executive.
In July, the attorney general, Merrick Garland, issued a memo banning federal prosecutors from using subpoenas, warrants or court orders to obtain reporters’ telephone and email records in leak investigations, placing sharp new limits on a practice used by both the Trump and Obama administrations.
And a spokesman for the Department of Justice told Downie that its investigations into the 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 pledge to lead the most transparent administration in the nation’s history, journalists and experts interviewed for the CPJ report said there had been “little improvement” in the responsiveness of government agencies to journalists’ requests for information and that “too many briefings and conversations” with administration officials are conducted on “deep background” and unattributable.
Press freedom advocates told the CPJ that the White House’s actions have “fallen 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 for failing to hold the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, accountable for the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
It also raised concerns among press freedom advocates with the Department of Justice’s 2019 decision to extradite the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the espionage act, which they warn could set a “dangerous precedent for use against journalists trying to do their jobs”.
“We as press freedom advocates and journalists need the United States to stand up and affirm … the first amendment values freedom of the press,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy executive director. “It cannot do that credibly on the international stage if press freedom is not fully respected at home in the United States.”