Bucha, Biden and the Washington news bubble

Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster
President Joe Biden speaks about the war in Ukraine at the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Legislative Conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

Just over two weeks ago, the world seemed tossed upside down by a “blunder,” an unscripted statement that sent aides and experts racing to stop a possible escalation of tension. It dominated headlines and news segments, filled with warnings of potentially dire fallout.

Here is the entire content of that remark: “For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power.”

Given the dreadful images and accounts emerging from Bucha in Ukraine, the mainstream media’s over-reaction to President Biden’s comment in Poland about Vladimir Putin now looks even more absurd than it did at the time. Pundits and correspondents — living and working inside the same bubble — convinced each other that Biden’s assertion could push the Russian leader into more extreme war measures.

It turns out Putin didn’t need any push at all.

Quick recap: On March 26, Biden gave an emotional speech in Warsaw, Poland, labelling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a critical event in the broader contest between democracy and autocracy. He ended his address with that unscripted line about Putin and power.

Breaking news updates on websites and cable quickly focused on Biden’s ad-lib. Concerns were loudly voiced that the president might be calling for regime change, something that could possibly make Putin very angry. Within minutes, those nine words defined the president’s speech in dozens of posts and segments.

With remarkable consistency, those reports described the moment and its aftermath in strikingly similar terms. Anonymous “aides” and “advisers” were quoted. They were “surprised” by the president’s remark. His ad-lib was labeled a “gaffe” — which those aides “scrambled” to address as they searched for ways to “walk it back.”

Soon enough, this analysis hardened into a kind of gospel. Biden’s words “threatened to overshadow” his speech in Warsaw. According to one analysis, it now seemed clear the president was “caught up in the force of his rhetoric” — which sounds like a patronizing way of saying “How could he not run this by anyone first?”

None of this is unusual. As recently as March 17, Biden responded to a reporter’s question about Putin by saying, yes, “I think he’s a war criminal.” That reply was immediately termed “a visceral reaction.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told assembled media that Biden was “speaking from the heart.”

Biden doesn’t like the Russian autocrat and clearly never has. Most Americans are inclined to agree with him. Yet there’s constant pressure from parts of the media and policy establishment to explain away his distaste for Putin in condescending terms. Viewers and readers are told about Biden’s “heart” and are reminded of his 2018 remark: “I’m a gaffe machine.”

And it is no coincidence that so many reports about the president follow an extraordinarily similar pattern. It’s the kind of journalism that often emerges from inside the Beltway, where journalists and policy-makers talk to each other day in and day out.

Most likely, in the moments after Warsaw, reporters all spoke to the same unidentified White House and State Department aides listed on speed-dial. Those officials offered up the same not-for-attribution quotes, which were then repeated everywhere — making it appear to some as if the entire government were engulfed in a crisis far more important than the Ukraine war itself.

What they said to reporters was accepted as true — both in essence and in the portrayal of urgency and panic within the halls of power. Their descriptions and emotions in that moment were embraced because these were trusted sources, people journalists rely on constantly for exclusive information from Foggy Bottom or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And so, if aides are “scrambling” to fix a big mistake, then those nine words must be a big mistake worthy of a scramble. If they say Biden has to “walk it back,” then undoubtedly that’s what he needs to do.

Maintaining an outsider’s outlook is, of course, an essential part of a journalist’s job — finding some distance, remaining objective. But that can be harder than it seems, especially under the pressures of non-stop deadlines in the digital news business. It takes enormous effort to resist getting pulled into the same story with the same point of view everyone else is reporting. Too often, there’s not enough time to even try.

That’s something readers and viewers need to keep in mind. When most mainstream media outlets treat a breaking story in the very same way, that could be a sign to news consumers: Add a healthy dose of skepticism.

This past week, as horrifying images from Bucha filled screens and front pages, Biden was at it again. He unequivocally branded Putin a “war criminal” and called for him to be put on trial for the slaughter.

But this time, no one scrambled. And nothing got walked back.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags anonymous sources Biden Biden speech breaking news coverage Bucha massacre Joe Biden Joe Biden gaffes Journalism sourcing Mainstream news media news coverage News Coverage of White House regime change Russian invasion of Ukraine skepticism US news media Vladimir Putin War crimes Washington bubble Washington, D.C.
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