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Press acts as toothless watchdogs at Biden pressers

Press acts as toothless watchdogs at Biden pressers
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The free press was established by the nation’s founders to scrutinize politicians and government leaders. Journalists presumably serve a “watchdog function,” serving as surrogates for the citizenry. The traditional media outlets have put that charge into overdrive during the Trump era with a combative and aggressive approach to reporting. When it comes to news treatment of Trump’s opponent in this year’s presidential election, however, the press has lost its watchdog teeth. The toothless and timid media approach was on full display during Democratic candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Five things to know about Georgia's Senate runoffs MORE’s recent press briefing.

Children are taught to respect their elders, particularly their grandparents. Journalists have taken that approach to heart when dealing with the smiling and affable Biden, who plays his grandfatherly, empathetic and senior statesman role to the hilt. But not all grandpas are campaigning to be president. Reporters should be challenging Biden’s presidential and policy qualifications as though he were a mid-career politician. By the way, Trump is also a grandpa and that hasn’t caused the press to refrain from aggressive reporting.

Journalists were embarrassingly docile at Biden’s recent press conference at his old Wilmington stomping grounds. Reporters’ questions pretty much just teed up Biden for well-rehearsed stump messages or campaign web site talking points. Biden was asked softball questions about his timetable to name his VP running mate (asked by a CNN reporter), which states should slow reopening after the COVID-19 crisis (asked by an ABC reporter), and what he thought about the restart of professional sports (asked by a CBS reporter). There was no interrupting Biden during his responses and no accusations. There was no shouting of questions when Biden departed the podium after fielding questions from just five reporters, all pre-selected from a friendly list (not Fox News, for example) provided by campaign aides.

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There were no questions about China, Biden’s tax increase plans, or efforts to defund the police. He was not asked about the January, 2017 Oval Office meeting at which Biden is alleged to have suggested using the Logan Act on Michael Flynn. There were no questions about Biden’s 30 minutes of lead-up remarks regarding economic plans to help minority communities. There was no press follow-up to Biden’s boast that his presidency would “go down as one of the most progressive administrations in American history,” all the while he is campaigning as a centrist or moderate.

The contrast to Trump’s pressers was impossible to miss. The antagonistic reporters at Trump’s press briefings want to make names for themselves with “gotcha” moments that will go viral and boost their status in the journalistic fraternity. Sure, Trump hates the press, and Biden is using the press, but the media should be umpiring election news with some degree of parity, not calling balls and strikes based on who is in the batter’s box.

No reporter, however, wants to be responsible for asking the aggressive question that sinks the Biden campaign. That could become the equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s fainting episode at a 9/11 memorial in 2016. The video of the listless Clinton being hoisted into a van by security personnel was widely viewed, putting a dent in her campaign aura. Any reporter who aggressively questioned Biden and prompted a campaign trajectory-changing gaffe would be ostracized in the journalism industry. That’s the culture of the news industry these days, where journalists get run off for being on the wrong side of a narrative. Ask James Bennet, the former editorial page editor at the New York Times.

Opportunities for reporters to question Biden in an unscripted setting have been rare as Biden campaign managers keep him out of the line of fire. Reporters can’t be spineless when such an occasion arises. The press also whiffed at the last Biden press conference in late June, which was almost three months after his previous general press availability.

The American press is free to take sides in elections. Professionalism and journalistic standards, however, dictate that advocacy be done in the opinion pages or on broadcast commentary shows labeled as such.

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The “news” side of the journalism world owes it to the public to live up to that watchdog function and test all candidates equally.

Joe Biden is a seasoned politician, to say the least. He needs to be challenged by the public’s stand-ins, the press. Answering the press’s impromptu questions is surely easier than what Biden will face on the world stage, should he win the White House. The public needs to see him take some journalistic pressure.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.