Biden’s first presser wasn’t about him — not really

President Biden gives his first formal press conference
UPI Photo

Many viewers, understandably, probably assumed President Biden’s first formal press conference on Thursday was all about him. It wasn’t.

The one-hour broadcast special actually was the first episode of America’s newest high-stakes reality show: “So You Think You Can Be A TV News Star?”

Despite a nonstop string of criticisms over why Biden waited 65 days before holding his first news conference, the real stress was not on the president — a 50-year veteran of politics who is accustomed to dealing with the media. No, the genuine drama came from the press corps itself — and the new crop of White House television news correspondents. They face a frightening combination of challenges — to their careers and to the economic health of the businesses they represent.

The Trump years provided news outlets and their White House correspondents a perpetual flood of outrage and scandal, ending in a crescendo of election lies, a Capitol riot and an unprecedented second impeachment trial.

That’s a hard act to follow — and Biden is determined to not even try. His workmanlike administration is quite intentionally a portrait of dull competence. This may be just what our democracy needs. But it’s most definitely the very last thing the media wants.

Cable and broadcast news ratings have plummeted from their Trump-inflated highs — some by nearly half in total viewers, even more in the key demographics that advertisers prefer. This only intensifies the financial squeeze which journalism already faces in the digital era. This new reality places a lot of pressure on reporters to try to recreate some level of Trumpian disruption, something that screams to the viewer: “Don’t touch that dial!”

Stress-levels in the East Room were palpable. Various television reporters each in turn held on to the microphone like a life preserver, asking follow-up after follow-up in anxious attempts to wring out a soundbite that could lead the next newscast and hold viewers through primetime.

The pandemic is now apparently boring; the topic went completely unasked. Instead, expected challenges on a shinier subject — immigration — came fast and furious. So did the unexpected, such as asking a new president on Day 65 whether he planned to run for reelection. And, while we’re at it, would his VP get the boot?

These strained press conference performances grew out of yet another key tension facing reporters: their futures. For decades, the White House correspondent slot has been a sure ticket to TV stardom. Norah O’Donnell, Brian Williams, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash and John King all covered presidents. Among recent graduates from the Trump beat, John Roberts, Jim Acosta and Pamela Brown have each moved up to key anchor positions.

For a new class of correspondents, the pressure is on. This is their shot. But simply doing the job well has never been enough, not if star status is the goal. On any given news day, White House correspondents get much more airtime than other reporters. Future stars use that time to build a brand, to develop a style and personality that viewers remember.

But, in order to become a celebrity journalist, you need an appropriately operatic stage as your backdrop, one filled with grand actions and bold confrontations, featuring a colorful 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue cast of the ambitious, craven and self-righteous.

What to do with a president who — so far, at least — won’t play along? One strategy is to elevate the everyday into the out-of-bounds: Missteps become scandals; disagreements are reported like deep-seated dissension. Anything to deliver must-see TV from the White House.

But the president’s headshakes and half-smiles at much of this during the press conference shows he understands exactly what’s going on. Trump and Obama were — in very different ways — newcomers to this game; both played defense too often. Not Biden. Given the calm assurance coming from the East Room podium last week, the media will have to try very hard to generate ratings fireworks.

Make no mistake: Try very hard they most certainly will: Too much is at stake — for them.

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 Biden press conference broadcast ratings Chris Wallace Dana Bash Jim Acosta Joe Biden Television trumpism US news media
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