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 reporters out as they shouted questions. Biden did not 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 White House announced the next day 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 supposed to take place on Wednesday, the eve of his first anniversary as president.
When Biden takes the dais, he faces a slew of challenges and setbacks, as well as a press corps eager to question him about it all.
His domestic agenda is stalled in the Senate, where his push for voting rights legislation has also hit a snag; inflation is at its highest level in nearly four decades; and the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate, a crucial part of his plan to combat the pandemic, which is now in its ’s third year.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s average of public polls, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 42% from 53% when he took office, a decline from 53% when he took office.
However, it comes amid growing calls from journalists and press freedom advocates for Biden to engage with reporters more directly.
In sharp contrast to Trump, Biden has stated that journalists are “indispensable to the functioning of democracy,” which the president has repeatedly warned is under threat both at home and abroad. Nonetheless, press access to the president has been limited.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a report last week that graded 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”.
Nonetheless, the report criticized the president for his lack of availability to journalists. As his first year comes to an end, Biden has held fewer press conferences and given fewer interviews than nearly all of his predecessors.
According to research compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, Biden has held just nine formal news conferences in his first year. At the same point in their presidencies, Trump had 22 and Barack Obama had 27.
Only Ronald Reagan held fewer press conferences during his first year after his public appearances were reduced following an assassination attempt in March 1981. However, Reagan conducted 59 interviews that year, compared to Biden’s 22.
During his first year, Trump, who has called the media the “enemy of the American people” and once praised a congressman who assaulted a reporter, gave 92 interviews. Many of those interviews were with supportive outlets, but they also included major networks and media organizations he frequently chastised, such as the New York Times and ABC News.
According to Kumar’s tally, Biden does field questions more frequently than his predecessors, but he takes fewer of them. These impromptu interactions with reporters frequently occur after 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 that Wednesday’s press conference will mark the start of a more public phase for the White House as it tries to gather support for Biden’s agenda ahead of next year’s midterms.
When asked about Biden’s lack of one-on-one interviews and formal news conferences, White House press secretary Jen Psaki argued that the president interacted with the press frequently and answered reporters’ questions 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.”
Kumar stated that Biden relies heavily on his cabinet and team to communicate the White House’s agenda due to the brief nature of his interactions and his tendency to make mistakes when speaking extemporaneously.
“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’s a stark contrast to the Trump era, when the president frequently contradicted his team and press briefings were irregular, hostile, and full of lies. Stephanie Grisham, one of Trump’s press secretaries, 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.”
According to Leonard Downie Jr, author of the CPJ report and former executive editor of the Washington Post, press briefings and fleeting exchanges with the press are not substitutes for hearing directly and in-depth from the president.
“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 holding a press conference, including the potential of political theater, grandstanding by reporters, and filibustering by the president. Nonetheless, he called the events a “valuable” opportunity for Americans to hear directly from the president – and for the rest of the world to see a leader field tough questions from a free and independent press.
The CPJ report praised the Biden administration for taking steps to protect press freedoms but stated that more work was needed.
Biden restored the editorial independence of the United States Agency for Global Media, which is home to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which had been severely harmed by the Trump administration. Biden fired the agency’s Trump-appointed CEO just hours after his inauguration.
Merrick Garland, the attorney general, issued a memo in July banning federal prosecutors from using subpoenas, warrants, or court orders to obtain reporters’ phone and email records in leak investigations, putting sharp new limits on a practice used by both the Trump and Obama administrations.
A Justice Department spokesman told Downie that the Department of Justice’s investigations into local police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Phoenix would include law enforcement’s treatment of journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests.
Despite Biden’s pledge to lead the most transparent administration in American history, journalists and experts interviewed for the CPJ report said there had been “little improvement” in government agencies’ responsiveness to journalists’ requests for information, and that “too many briefings and conversations” with administration officials are conducted on “deep background” and are unattributable.
According to press freedom advocates, the White House’s actions have “fallen short” of its lofty rhetoric. They chastised the administration in the report for failing to extract Afghan journalists during the chaotic US military withdrawal, as well as for failing to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
It also raised concerns among press freedom advocates about the Department of Justice’s decision in 2019 to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, which they say 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.”