After a historic 64-day wait for President Biden’s first press conference on March 25, 2023, one would have expected someone in the Press Corps to ask one of those proverbial $64,000 questions. Instead, we got a largely tedious display of journalists from the so-called “liberal media” trying to outdo one another in their hopes of snagging a memorable soundbite from the president, who has previously self-confessed to being a “gaffe machine.” Also, Biden’s critics in the right-wing media, especially the opinion pundits of Fox News, had been deriding the president for weeks and thus lowering expectations for his presser performance. But Biden not only held his own against the “gotcha” attempts of the left, but also came across as polite, presidential and prepared (yes, with cheat sheets and all) much to the chagrin of the right.
The coronavirus pandemic — that had so enmeshed the Trump presidency and had journalists constantly bombard the former president with questions relating to his handling of it — merited no such attention at the Biden presser. Because the right-wing political machine had managed, yet again, to successfully distract the larger public’s attention away from Biden’s broadly popular American Rescue Plan, a.k.a., the COVID-19 Stimulus Package. Instead, duped liberal media journalists that Biden called on asked — about the “border crisis” (which was reminiscent of the right-wing media’s migrant caravans prior to the 2018 midterm elections that magically disappeared after the elections), immigration reform, and the Senate filibuster — just what their counterparts on the right wanted. So, the Biden presser was consistent with how the Trump administration had handled these — using deflection as a strategy — only in this instance, it was the liberal media forcing the president to pivot away from what he should have actually focused on.
They came, they queried, and they failed in their “gotcha” attempts.
Given this background, it was highly disappointing to watch the Chief White House Correspondents (CWHC) — for the three major broadcast networks and the oldest cable news network — all succumb to the temptation of “gotcha” journalism. They might have had noble intentions of being tough in an interrogative sense on Biden, as they had often been on Trump, but some of their attempts came across as puerile and many were futile. So, we had four powerhouse women journalists — Cecilia Vega, CWHC for ABC News; Kristen Welker, CWHC for NBC News; Nancy Cordes, CWHC for CBS News; and Kaitlan Collins, CWHC for CNN — who tried to snare Biden into a headline-making gaffe. None of them succeeded, as the White House transcript of their Q&A clearly shows. In fact, the vanity of their efforts in trying to pin down the president on various issues is quite apparent. Yet, Biden handled their onslaught pretty well.
It began with ABC’s Cecilia Vega trying to shock the president with this gut-wrenching detail on the “border crisis” as follows:
Cecilia Vega: There are kids that are sleeping on floors. They are packed into these pods. I’ve spoken to lawyers who say that they — some of these children have not seen the sun in days. What’s your reaction — what is your reaction to these images that have come out from that particular facility? Is what’s happening inside acceptable to you? And when is this going to be fixed?
THE PRESIDENT: Is — that’s a serious question, right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on.
Then, NBC’s Kristen Welker tried to nail the president on a redline on North Korea, à la, former president Obama’s infamous redline on Syria:
Kristen Welker: Overnight, we learned that North Korea tested two ballistic missiles. What, if any, actions will you take? And what is your red line on North Korea?
THE PRESIDENT: Let me say that, number one, U.N. Resolution 1718 was violated by those particular missiles that were tested — number one. We’re consulting with our allies and partners. And there will be responses — if they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly.
But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization. So that’s what we’re doing right now: consulting with our allies.
Kristen Welker: Just a very quick follow-up —
THE PRESIDENT: You’ve only got another hour now, okay?
Kristen Welker: Diplomacy — can you define what you mean?
After that sanctimonious display, CBS’s Nancy Cordes swung for the fences with a Trumpian provocation about the 2024 election:
Nancy Cordes: And then, on a related note, have you decided whether you are going to run for reelection in 2024? You haven’t set up a reelection campaign yet, as your predecessor had by this time.
THE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) My predecessor need do [sic] — needed to. My predecessor. Oh God, I miss him.
Nancy Cordes: Have you — have you —
And later CNN’s Kaitlan Collins picked up the reelection thread with even more fervor as follows:
Kaitlan Collins: You also just made some news by saying that you are going to run for reelection.
THE PRESIDENT: I said, “That is my expectation.”
Kaitlan Collins: So is that a “yes” that you are running for reelection?
THE PRESIDENT: Look, I — I don’t know where you guys come from, man. I’ve never been able to travel. I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan four and half, three and a half years ahead for certain.
Kaitlan Collins: And if you do —
THE PRESIDENT: It —
Kaitlan Collins: If you do run, will Vice President Harris be on your ticket?
THE PRESIDENT: I would fully expect that to be the case. She’s doing a great job. She’s a great partner. She’s a great partner.
Kaitlan Collins: And do you believe you’ll be running against former President Trump?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, come on. I don’t even think about — I don’t — I have no idea. I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party. Do you? I know you don’t have to answer my question, but, I mean, you know, do you?
It was a frustrating spectacle to watch. Nonetheless, it was satisfying to see that Biden did not take the bait and commit one of his notorious “gaffes” that the media had been clearly hoping for.
Same Old Columnist, Same Hurtful Tactics.
Now, it is understandable that the liberal media establishment will try to hold Biden accountable with the same gusto that it did previous presidents. But its needs to remember that Biden is not Trump. The shadow of Trump must not fall on future presidents. And the media has an important role to play in this regard by not allowing Trump’s “enemy of the people” refrain to color its treatment of Biden. The above line of questioning by the four CWHCs came on the heels of a related snarky article by New York Times op-ed writer, Maureen Dowd. In her March 20, 2023 column, “Old Pol, New Tricks,” Ms. Dowd appeared to be stirring up early trouble among the top Democratic brass, including Biden, Obama, Clinton, Schumer, et al. It was what former President Bill Clinton might have called a “hit piece.”
Ms. Dowd’s sardonic piece began as follows:
“Joe Biden never had a seat at the cool kids’ table at the Obama White House.”
It went sort of downhill from there. In response I submitted a comment on the column that the NYT apparently did not deem “fit to print.” Readers can decide whether my comment — which I have pasted (as originally submitted to the NYT) below — was unfit to print :
“Look, we know Trump — delicious fodder for tabloid journalism — is gone. So, in order to draw readers, this click-bait column is trying really hard to cause a rift among senior Democratic leaders. We get it — Biden is boring but boring is such a tremendous relief after the tumultuous four years we had under the former guy.
Can we please enjoy the calm for just a little while longer? Because, eventually some or the other storm — most likely caused by the media — will hit the Biden presidency. In the interim, feel free to pick on the Republicans until all of Trump’s insurrectionists have been brought to justice.”
Après Trump, a ratings and readership challenge for the media.
It is apparent that ratings and readership for various media content has been adversely affected in the post-Trump era. The media’s performance at the Biden presser was likely driven, in part, by declining newspaper readership and television viewership. The former president, who considered the press as “the enemy of the people,” nonetheless had given the press its best audience and rankings in a long time. In the Biden era, the press will need to reinvent itself because there simply won’t be as many lies and alternative facts to counter. Let’s hope that in its pursuit of ratings and readership, the media does not make “fake news” — even, advertently — a reality! Because, as the saying goes, “he who laughs last, laughs best” will follow and we could be witnessing déjà vu all over again. That might turn out well for the media, but it would be devastating for the country! So, “country first” should be the mantra for the media, just as it expects it to be for the politicians that it covers.